WASHINGTON - Years from now, when scholars examine the great transformations in the role the United States plays around the world, they may conclude that the most significant reshaping of America's military profile in a half century occurred this very spring.
These scholars will see, for example, important shifts in the two anchors of American military might, the huge installations on the Korean peninsula and in Germany. They will see the United States abandoning its large redoubt on the Arabian peninsula for smaller bases around the Persian Gulf. And they will see the beginnings of new or substantially enhanced American commitments in Africa, the Middle East and the nations that once were part of the Warsaw Pact.
Just as World War II, which produced the bipolar system of American and Soviet struggle, brought about major changes in where American military personnel were based, the war on terrorism, with its engagements in the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert expanses of Iraq, is producing important adjustments in the deployment of American forces.
The American bases of the future will be in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The bywords for American installations will be different, too: Smaller. Sparer. And full of singles, not families.
All of this is being done with great speed -- and great urgency.
Some 18,000 American forces in Korea, for example, are being moved away from the Demilitarized Zone. As recently as a year ago, the troops were prized as a tripwire that would prevent North Korea from launching an attack on Seoul. Now, with North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons or close to developing them, the presence of American troops near the DMZ is suddenly less a deterrent than a target. And by repositioning those forces, the United States instantly adjusts the role of its troops in Korea, committing them not to one particular mission but making them available for any number of missions.
Similarly, the likely shrinking of the American commitment in Germany is recognition that the force structure that developed during the Cold War not only isn't protecting American interests but also may even be undermining American interests. The 70,000 American troops in Germany are out of position in the new world order, which is dominated by threats from terror groups rather than from nation-states. But, perhaps most ominous, the presence of American installations in Germany -- forces plus families -- may also be a fatefully tempting target for America's enemies.
"The United States no longer needs troops in Germany to oppose the Soviet Union, and it seems to be spending a lot of time in the Balkans and east of that," says Stephen M. Saideman, a political scientist at Montreal's McGill University. "In that context, moving the American profile makes sense. Part of it is cost containment. Part of it is strategic."
These new deployments sound like major commitments, and of course they are. But though Americans are reluctant to think of themselves as presiding over an empire, these deployments are far from unprecedented in world history. In 1897, the Colonial Office List maintained by Britain was 506 pages long. And on the eve of World War I, Britain had naval bases and depots around the world, including six in the Americas.
The new deployments match the challenges the nation faces in this millennium.
The important confrontations in the Cold War occurred in East Asia and in Eastern Europe, where East met West in frigid impasse. The important confrontations of the contemporary period have occurred in an arc of conflict stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia. The heavy units and big installations of the 20th century, developed for defensive purposes, are unsuited to the challenges of the 21st century, where offensive operations, from the Persian Gulf to Pakistan, may increasingly dominate American military strategy.
"What's going on is an effort to position U.S. forces in places -- and also in ways -- where they're much more readily available to intervene," says Andrew J. Bacevich, a former Army colonel who is a professor of international relations at Boston University.
The new bases will be austere, there will be few families on them and the troops will be rotated in and out of them rapidly. But mostly they will be closer to the trouble than their predecessors.
This new basing strategy is the logical extension of the foreign policy strategy of the Bush administration, which calls for pre-emptive action when America is, or could be, threatened with terrorism or with the development of weapons of mass destruction.
It doesn't mean that all of the old installations will be abandoned; almost everyone agrees, for example, that Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany will continue to play an important role. But other bases in Germany are in jeopardy, in part because American officials are impatient with environmental stipulations that are limiting the ability of commanders to lead training missions and in part because the Bush administration is impatient with Germany's reluctance to support the United States in its military intervention in Iraq.
The result: An administration that planned on playing a modest role around the globe suddenly finds itself more entrenched than ever. That's not all. An administration that also wasn't interested in nation-building is finding itself trying to perform precisely that in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and perhaps before long in a Palestinian state. But history consists of the unexpected, and the unexpected troop movements that are attracting so little attention are themselves part of a history-making transformation. The world is not the same, and neither is the way the United States is responding to it.