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US Southern Command as Command in the Defense Department Essay

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Updated: Jan 6th, 2022

US Southern Command is one of ten unified commands in the Defense Department. It covers Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cuba and the Panama Canal. It is responsible for “providing contingency planning, operations and security cooperation” in its specified area in conjunction with the rest of the United States military and the other unified commands (US Southern, “About Us”). Southern Command was formally named in 1963, as a redesignation of the US Caribbean Command. The Caribbean Command was approved by President Truman in 1946 when the system of unified commands was first established by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “put responsibility for conducting military operations of all military forces in various geographical areas in the hands of a single commander” (US Southern, “History”). It was changed to reflect the fact that the Caribbean Command actually had jurisdiction over Central and South America as well. Prior to this designation by Truman, Marines had been stationed in Panama since 1903. Southern Command experienced minor redrawing of its boundaries with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and with the implementation of the Panama Canal Treaties the US Southern Command headquarters was relocated to Miami, Florida in 1997 (US Southern, “History”).

On the international scene US Southern Command has sought to pursue a wide range of missions designed to enhance global stability. From humanitarian efforts to countering international illicit drug transfers the US military has been working in Central and South America to ensure international stability and security. The organizational structure itself was “designed to facilitate interagency collaboration” (Nunez) in order to coordinate massive international operations such as the Haiti relief mission. Ships such as the USS Kearsarge have been deployed to the Atlantic to “serve as a model for the Navy’s ‘soft power’ efforts in the future” by “delivering disaster relief and humanitarian air to a handful of countries in that region” (Baker). Meanwhile the other major focus of Southern Command remains trying to “strop and disrupt traffic in the maritime environments” of drug traffickers (Fraser). The efforts so far have been successful, Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of US SOUTHCOM citing Columbia as examples of “denying the air transit out of [and] into the Caribbean.”

The most public and controversial example of US Southern Command influence recently has been its efforts to aid Haiti after an earthquake ravaged the country. After the disaster, within 30 hours the U.S. military reopened Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port Au Prince. They “controlled airfield operations from a cart table and used hand-held radios to safely land and take-off hundreds of aircrafts” (“U.S. Southern Command Transitions”). Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, the first commander of the joint task force, cited efforts from the Haitian Government, MINUSTAH, and the State Department and USAID as instrumental in restoring normalcy to Haiti as quickly as possible.

There has been plenty of criticism surrounding the effort of US Southern Command in Haiti. The efforts in Haiti did reveal some weaknesses in SOUTHCOM’s structure that “initially hindered it efforts to conduct a large scale military operation” (Nunez). Moreover, Arun Gupta has leveled criticism of the relief effort as a means of US imperialism shrouded in discourse of humanitarianism. Gupta’s extends many unwarranted conclusions from the premises put forward, citing at one point conspiracy theorists to back up claims of US domination of the country.

Garcia Encina observes that from a political standpoint “Obama had to make this effort. The institutional and economic vacuum created by the earthquake and the urgent need to help the people of Haiti require US leadership.” Gupta cites a New York Times article wherein the direction of political stability in the country was toward “a rare, peaceful transfer of power” that became “rumblings of chaos and coups.” However, from this Gupta derives a conspiratorial drive from the United States toward regime change. In reality, the situation required that a developed nation step in to ensure that the Haitian people were able to recover from the disaster because the Haitian government simply didn’t have the resources at hand. As Navy Capt. Frank Ponds stated, the Haitian people did not care what country or what kind of ship came to their aid, all they cared about was a ship “bringing critical capability by sea, air and shore to their citizens. And…that’s all we care about. We are no threat to any host nation down there, because we are here on a humanitarian assistance mission” (Baker).

To be fair, the US does have critical interests in the stability of Haiti. The high number of Haitian-born people living in the US as well as Haitian refugees which “headed in their hundreds to the US…when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in the 1990s” closely maps upheaval on the island (Dombey). Moreover, the status of Haiti as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, so close to the US, provides some security question to US policymakers. The Haiti effort was “also a way to showcase American values at a time when anti-US sentiment is rampant around the world” (Encina). And while this may be perceived by some as asserting its hegemonic power, Nunez reminds us that hegemony is “not a dirty word, but its usage today often elicits negative and visceral responses because it is interpreted as imperialism.” The US has “regularly deployed their military and diplomatic assets to help after past disasters, such as the Asian tsunami, partly as a way of projecting US power in a benevolent way, so expanding Washington’s soft power” (Dombey). Given the state of the Haiti however, the international scene has presented an unprecedented position for US soft power where “U.S. aid agencies and their partners are at the forefront of United States security policy” (Mathopoullos). Thus, while US intervention in Haiti necessarily extended US power in the region, it was done so at a benefit to the devastated Haitian people, and without any of the traditional imperialist principles of the past.

Works Cited

Baker, Fred W. “USS Kearsarge Demonstrates Navy ‘Soft Power’ Capabilities.” American Foreign Press Service. 2008. Web.

Dombey, Daniel. “Obama pledges swift, co-ordinated action.” Financial Times. 2010. Web.

Encina, Garcia. “Haiti: the U.S. Military Aid in Times of Natural Disaster.” Real Instituto Elcano. 2010. Web.

Fraser, Douglas. “U.S. Southern Command Operational Update Briefing.” Foreign Press Center. 2010. Web.

Gupta, Arun. “Haiti: A New U.S. Occupation Disguised as Disaster Relief?” Z Magazine. 2010. Web.

Mathopoullos, William. “US aid commitment, “unprecedented” position at forefront of national security policy.” Diplomacy and Power Politics. 2010. Web.

“Haiti Earthquake of 2010” New York Times. 2010. Web.

Nunez, Joseph. A 21st Century Security Architecture for the Americas: Multilateral Cooperation, Liberal Peace, and Soft Power. Washington DC: Army War College, 2002. Print.

US Southern Command. “About Us.” n.p. 2006. Web.

US Southern Command. “History of US Southern Command.” n.p. 2007. Web.

PR Newswire. 2010.

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