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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson smiles when asked if he’s as much a diplomat as a war fighter.

“I think it all runs together,” said the commander of all U.S. Marines in Japan. “What people call diplomacy is all part of being a general. It’s a major part of what we do.”

Servicemembers interact with local populations every day, he said. Each Marine base has a community relations department to help facilitate good relations.

It’s so much of what he does, that it’s hard to pin him down for an interview at his office on Camp Foster. Sometimes the trips away from home are planning sessions with the major military commands that oversee Far East security. But often, he’s busy glad-handing government officials in areas where his Marines are deployed.

“To one degree or another, all military members act as diplomats for our nation,” said Air Force Col. Victor L. Warzinski, U.S. Forces Japan’s public affairs director. Residents with whom forces regularly interact “will draw their conclusions about America and Americans based on how we conduct ourselves.”

In the book “The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America’s Military,” Washington Post reporter Dana Priest describes an American empire held together by what she calls “CINCdoms,” the five regional commanders, and commanders such as Gregson.

She calls the CINCs “proconsuls to the empire,” postulating they’ve become more independent and influential than the ambassadors of the countries they cover.

The power they wield and the assets at their command are enormous, Priest says. In the State Department, only Secretary of State Colin Powell has an airplane at his disposal; each commander has a jet and a fleet of helicopters.

But there is a danger, notes a review of Priest’s book in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs:

The commanders “get high marks, but Priest is right to observe a larger problem: The disproportionate resources available to the military, compared with civil agencies, introduces an inevitable distortion into how the United States deals with difficult parts of the world.”

The United States relies too heavily on its military to act as diplomats in areas that stray far from regional defense issues, Priest concludes.

“These generals and admirals are quite skilled, even if they are not truly trained in diplomacy,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. “But perhaps, we still defer to them too much. Because of their regional focus, and the resources at their disposal, and the desire of many countries to associate with the U.S. military, they have appeal that diplomats normally do not.”

The ‘good neighbor’

In South Korea, Gen. Leon J. LaPorte wears the command hats for the United Nations Command, South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea. The general declined to be interviewed by Stars and Stripes about diplomatic aspects of his job. But since taking command last spring, much of his work has entailed work normally associated with diplomacy.

For instance, a central focus of his command has been improving the U.S.-South Korean alliance. LaPorte has created a “good neighbor” program to improve relations between the military and civilian communities. LaPorte has said the program will improve relations not only between the bases and adjacent communities but also with the media, universities and South Korea’s military. USFK is establishing a Korean-language Web site and hot line and has designated May as “Good Neighbor Month.”

“We’ve always been good neighbors, but we’ve made a considerable effort over the past six months to become better neighbors,” he told the Korea Times. “We’ve raised the bar quite a bit in terms of our good neighbor program.”

Gregson said the military is well suited to carry out such programs. The military has greater resources than the State Department, he said, but he stressed that the two cooperate closely.

“We help out the local State Department folks by bringing in resources they don’t otherwise have,” Gregson said.

“In a bigger sense, humanitarian assistance is all part of the whole training package and the whole training mission,” he said. “The pure, straight, strict military action is only one piece of it.

“The essential point is that we have far more people in direct contact with the various populations,” Gregson said. “And we have far more resources that we can put forth on a problem than an ambassador can.”

That may be put to the test in Iraq, as the United States steps in to run the country until a new government is formed. Heading the interim government will be retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance director.

Fixing what was broken

His resume demonstrates a fact of modern military operations, Gregson said: If the military is ordered to tear something apart, “You’ve got to make sure you can put it all back together. The best example of this is the Marshall Plan after World War II.”

All command post exercises, he said, include portions on what to do with refugees, nongovernmental organizations and other noncombat situations the troops might face.

In postwar Kosovo, Priest said, she observed soldiers who found themselves serving as police chiefs, social workers and arbiters of property disputes. One officer admitted, “We were making it up as we go along.”

“There’s no formal program that goes directly at the question — how to do negotiations, how to do this type of stuff,” Gregson said. Much of what he does, he said, was learned by on-the-job-training, watching his predecessors.

“I’d watch Gen. Frank Libutti,” he said of his former boss. “I used to watch him sip a lot of tea and work with folks.”

Gregson was interviewed before the war in Iraq began, where Marines are being challenged on a much greater scale.

“It’s the natural instinct of Americans to take care of people in harm’s way — to help the less fortunate,” he said. “I’d argue, that whatever I do at the flag level would be invalidated and useless if it was not filtered down to the junior folks.”

Priest is critical of the military’s role in shaping foreign policy, claiming the United States has become too dependent on its military to carry out diplomacy and humanitarian relief.

“When the fighting stops in Iraq,” she wrote, “the U.S. military — 22-year-old infantry soldiers — will again be given the lead in rebuilding civilian society there, a mission that easily could take more than 10 years.

“There is no strong alternative to the military,” she said in an online chat on the Washington Post Web site in February, predicting that post-war Iraq would be run by “large U.S. troop concentrations all over the country — with brigade-level garrisons.

“When force protection is a major concern, the mission of rebuilding gets hampered by orders that troops must move in four-vehicle convoys, can’t go out at night, etc. Attitude tends to be a hunker-down mentality rather than the kind of ‘hearts and minds’ outreach that everyone agrees is needed.”

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