After a decade of war in the Middle East, the Obama Administration announced a pivot to the Pacific in December 2011. The strategy seeks increased influence through new and strengthened partnerships to challenge China’s efforts to dominate the region. Prioritizing where and how to employ U.S. military and diplomatic tools is hard. Current global problems make it increasingly difficult. Distant regions are important, but so are those nearer to our shores. Our own hemisphere must remain high on our list of priorities.
Issues in Central and South America directly affect our nation. Their impact is quick and constant, due to their proximity. This makes the mission of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) vital to U.S. national security. We cannot ignore challenges in the Middle East and Asia, but neither can we commit all our resources to just those areas. We must encourage partner nations in those regions to pledge to safeguarding their neighborhoods so we can do the same in ours.
The commander of SOUTHCOM, Marine General John Kelly, understands the importance of the region. Not one to mince words, he believes the combined problems of drug smuggling, illegal immigration, and terrorism represent an existential threat to the United States. General Kelly is correct, and today we have an ongoing humanitarian crisis on our southern border. Poverty and violent crime in Latin America, along with our own immigration policies, have led tens of thousands of immigrants, many unaccompanied children, to flee their countries for ours.
The crisis is, as General Kelly observed, a vital national-security concern. Greater control of our southern border would help prevent disease and the entry of terrorist elements operating in Latin America. We have done a pretty good of job securing our airports and seaports; we must do the same on our land borders.
Aside from border security, we should also assist our neighbors to improve conditions in their countries, thereby decreasing their citizens’ desires to leave. Dedicated and constant global engagement in the region would help.
The best-known existing multinational engagements there are the annual naval exercise UNITAS, sponsored by SOUTHCOM, and the more recent Partnership of the Americas. Both are designed around naval forces and include mostly South American countries. While these operations are important, restarting and expanding another SOUTHCOM initiative, Continuing Promise, might be better suited to current challenges. Once advertised as “an annual humanitarian civic assistance operation,” it happened only twice, in 2009 and 2010.
A non-warfare, interagency operation, Continuing Promise brought together military, nongovernmental, and civic assistance operations to deliver much-needed medical, dental, and veterinary treatment in several Latin American countries. It included new construction, building renovation, and utilities repair projects. This mission offers significant potential for positive impacts in Latin America. Developing it to include legal and law-enforcement experts to help partners fight crime and corruption; riverine operators to improve coastal security; and border-control specialists to decrease the free flow of immigrants, criminals, and terrorists throughout the region would have an immediate impact.
The ongoing Southern Partnership Station 2014 moves in this direction. Combining regional security, partnership building, and humanitarian assistance into a single mission, the four-month deployment provides the basis for designing similar missions in the near term. Along with shifts in foreign aid and business investment, we can help improve social and infrastructure conditions in Latin America. These developments would increase commerce in and with Central and South America while making the entire hemisphere more secure.
Contemporary difficulties demand continuous efforts. Otherwise, the door is open for competitors to increase their influence in our hemisphere. We must respect General Kelly’s judgment and respond to his calls for SOUTHCOM to get a bigger piece of the Defense budget. We have made promises to our nearest partners. We must keep them and deliver real solutions for our neighbors and ourselves.