America's military will not emerge from the Iraq war unscathed. Bolstered by victory, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to restructure the armed forces and the way they are deployed will mean fundamental changes in American defense policy.
For the most part, those changes will be for the better. Policies now under consideration, for example, include changes that could make Reserve and National Guard service more predictable for the citizen-soldiers relied on so heavily in both gulf wars, and to make American bases overseas more secure and less intrusive in a changed world.
The recent announcement that U.S. forces would withdraw from Saudi Arabia -- abandoning the current regional Air Force headquarters at Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh in favor of a newer command center hosted by Qatar -- is a prime example. Saudi Arabia refused to allow American offense air strikes to launch from its base, and American troop presence in the land most sacred to Islam has been a constant irritant in the Islamic world. Easing that tension and finding a more welcoming base makes sense.
Even more telling is the consideration now being given to major cutbacks in U.S. forces in Germany -- where 68,000 troops are still stationed largely to meet the vanished threat of Soviet armor advancing across the German plains -- in favor of lightly manned "lily pad" staging bases being enthusiastically offered by former Cold War opponents Romania and Bulgaria, and the relocation of the main U.S. garrison from Seoul to the South Korean countryside.
"That may be seen as punishment in those countries," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst for the Brookings Institution. "It would help if Rumsfeld was more of a diplomat, but those changes make sense."
The United States now has 499 facilities in Europe, with 112,000 troops. The new system would feature air, land and sea deployment "hubs" that are more operationally flexible, to meet a new post-Cold War generation of smaller-scale threats in different regions of the world.
Changes in how military units are deployed, increasingly from stateside bases as the divisions sent initially to Iraq were, are more fundamental than the more-publicized Rumsfeld push for lighter, faster forces instead of the older model of overwhelming force massively deployed.
That change, O'Hanlon rightly argues, started before Rumsfeld, who "came in with some very vague ideas, and was talked out of some of them." But the Iraq war offered a proving ground for the "lighter, faster" concept, with its successful combat heresy of quick advances leaving armed units untouched in supposedly vulnerable rear areas.
It was a war fought with less than half the ground forces and more than four times the peak-period air strikes of the first gulf war, and it decimated larger defending forces and picked off whole Republican Guard divisions before they could retreat to the feared street-fighting scenario of urban combat.
That victory can and should lead to increased emphasis on special forces and mobile, highly flexible and self-contained units. Like the current rethinking of America's global military "footprint," it offers a better security response to a changed world.