Partnerships Continue with New SOUTHCOM Commander
By Dialogo February 27, 2013
Interview with U.S. Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, SOUTHCOM Commander
The afternoon General John F. Kelly took charge of SOUTHCOM, the red U.S. Marine Corps flag – his branch flag – flew over the Command headquarters, along with those of partner nations in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Since that day, in November 2012, the four-star general, who commanded troops in Iraq and worked shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, has traveled extensively to Latin America, getting to know the region’s senior military and defense leaders and their perspectives. Hours before heading south again – to the Central American isthmus this time –, Gen. Kelly shared with Diálogo some of his thoughts on the region, and on the importance of strengthening partnerships against what he calls “the common poison of drugs.”
Diálogo: General Kelly, after visiting a few countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America, what’s your assessment of the region?
U.S. Marine Corps General John F. Kelly: Since I have been here at SOUTHCOM, I have visited Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, and tomorrow I will head down to Panama and then Guatemala. I have hit a lot of places, I guess. Before that, when I worked with U.S. Secretary of Defense [Leon] Panetta, I made trips to Latin America. I have been to Peru, now a couple of times, Chile a couple of times, Colombia a couple of times, Brazil a couple of times, Uruguay, once. My impressions of the countries I have visited are that they want to have a relationship with the United States, and the United States wants to have a partnership with virtually everybody in the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
When I say partnership, I don’t mean a dominant partnership, I mean a partnership.
Years ago we had a different relationship with this part of the world, but now it has matured. Take Brazil [for example,] that is now a world power, economic as well as military, in the right way military. You have Colombia, a tremendous success story. Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, most people in the United States, certainly in Washington, would not have given much hope at all to Colombia. People say “You can’t win the drug war”, and I would say “Look at Colombia!” People say, “You can’t win the war against drugs”, and I say, “Look at Peru and what they are trying to do!” A lot of people would say, “You can’t win the drug war”, but look at what our friends the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the Salvadorans, the Belizeans are trying to do in the Northern Tier. They want a partnership with the United States on their terms, and the United States wants to partner with them on their terms. Obviously, we have a tremendous trading relationship with this part of the world, and we have attained a relationship of quality that has already emerged.
Diálogo: Before your last assignment as Senior Military Assistant to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, you were deployed to Iraq, so you are no stranger to different cultures and different languages. From your experience, what is the importance of understanding the culture and language of the countries in our region?
Gen. Kelly: The United States is much closer in terms of culture to this part of the world. Whether you speak Spanish or Portuguese or not, in the United States we have millions and millions of people who have arrived from countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America. In comparison to the Middle East, this is easy, and frankly refreshing. For the last ten years of my life, like most people in the United States Military, but particularly Marines and U.S. Army Soldiers, our lives have been dominated by the war.
I had three tours in Iraq, just about a year each and, in one case, longer than a year.
The good news about this area of the world is that, for the most part, people are not throwing rocks at each other; they are talking to each other. For the most part, people are getting along; they are trading with each other. This part of the world is not as dangerous. Yes, Colombia is still dealing with a tough fight; the Peruvians have a fight on their hands with Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path], but for the most part people here are getting along with each other, and the United States just wants to be part of that.
Diálogo: And in that goal of promoting understanding among countries in the region, how do you value the importance of the partner nations’ liaison officers at SOUTHCOM?
Gen. Kelly: They are absolutely invaluable to us. We have several partner nation liaison officers here. In fact, we just said goodbye to Brazilian Marine [Commander Alexandre Silva] who is going back to his country to take command of a battalion. His replacement is already here.
They are invaluable individuals for us to understand each other and get along. And in our organization in Key West, Joint Interagency Task Force – South, we also have a very large number of liaison officers from various countries.
Unfortunately, there are some countries in this part of the world that we are not on the best terms with at the moment. We all hope that will change. My greatest hope is that those countries will someday, during my tour here, be more accepting so we can develop a better and friendlier partnership with them, on their terms.
If that happens…[it would be] good. And I hope it happens before I leave, because there are some common challenges regardless of what country you are in the world. The obvious one is drugs and the illegal money from profits generated by drugs. It doesn’t matter if you are a Central American country desperately trying to fight this fight or if you are Colombia, that is emerging from a tough time and doing so well; it doesn’t matter if you are Venezuela; it doesn’t matter if you are Bolivia, Ecuador or Chile. The poison that is drugs and the money it generates is everybody’s concern, and it is in everyone’s interest to try to stem the tide of this cancer. You would be surprised at the great work countries are doing shoulder to shoulder with us down in Key West, trying to deal with this terrible problem of drugs.
Diálogo: Given the budget cuts proposed by the U.S. Department of Defense, what’s the future of key U.S. Southern Command military exercises such as PANAMAX?
Gen. Kelly: Hopefully we are going to save most of them. We are doing a lot of searching right now for internal efficiencies. If what we do here is engagement, partnerships, and counter drug activities, everything else has to be looked at as a potential cut. Many of our exercises are not real big; we are not sending brigades, we are sending four or five guys, sometimes 12 for a month or two to work with the partner nation military. It is not a huge investment.
A lot of times conferences are looked at as things you can do without, but conferences are hugely important to SOUTHCOM because they bring the partners together even if it is for a couple of days to talk about countering drugs, humanitarian and disaster relief, which is huge down here.
Unfortunately that’s one of the things that will suffer. This is not to say that we are not going to walk away from disaster relief. If, God forbid, a volcano or a terrible hurricane happens, the United States will be there, but for sure not as quickly. It will take a longer period of time to help in the recovery, but we are still there for all our partners and friends, not just the ones that we are most friendly with. We are all human beings, we are all in this together, and helping each other out is the best form of partnership. I don’t care what country it is. If there is a humanitarian disaster, regardless of what country it is, SOUTHCOM will be there to help relieve that problem for those people.
Diálogo: You already chaired the Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC) in December 2012, one of the three major SOUTHCOM events. What are your expectations for the Central America Security Conference (CENTSEC) and the South America Defense Chiefs Conference (SOUTHDEC), the other two main conferences?
Gen. Kelly: That’s our bread and butter: bringing people together in conferences, in tabletop exercises or exercises. The relationships you develop are at least as important or probably more important than the actual thing that you are doing. I operated around the world in my time as a Marine and the one truism I found is that personal relations count probably more than anything. People tell me that in Latin America personal relationships are important, but it is no different in the Middle East. As different as they are, to know the Sheik, to know the clan leader, to look in his eyes and work through a problem with him and develop a personal relationship, so that when there is a problem you pick up the phone and there is trust there. I have been in Asia, South America now and certainly the Middle East and Europe in my almost 40 years as a Marine, and the one constant is that personal relations count. That means getting out to see people. If they come here the door is always open, whether it is a general, an admiral or an ambassador. And when I go there the doors have always been open, with the exception of a couple of countries, but I hope someday to visit those countries and to develop a relationship with those leaders and their countries. In the meantime, I am happy to just make a commitment that if anything happens in those countries and they want us to help, we will be there to help.
Diálogo: What is your most important message for the senior military leaders in the region?
Gen. Kelly: We are with you. We are shoulder to shoulder with you. We are friends. Yes, we have budget issues, but the good news is that all the countries we deal with today in this part of the world – this isn’t the case in a lot of the world – want to do it themselves. They want a partnership of equals, and I think that is hugely important. Although the United States is dealing with pretty significant budget problems, we will get beyond this. In the meantime, my commitment is to work as close as I can, as often as I can, with as many countries in our region for all the things of mutual importance: counterdrug, humanitarian, medical… Some countries are facing tough challenges, Central American countries in particular, but my advice is to look at Colombia, look at what Peru is doing, and know that we are with you. That’s my message.