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A police officer from Florida who was in Israel this week on a combined tourism and professional visit proudly wore a West Point T-shirt. It's not me, it's my son, he said. Every year, the military academy produces about 850 graduates for the U.S. Army, the American ground forces. This summer the police officer's son will be one of them. He already knows that he will become an artillery officer, and that will always be his branch affiliation, but soon, after an initial experience as an artilleryman, he will be transferred to the Military Police. In Iraq, and in the anticipated military interventions of the coming years, policing forces will be needed more than artillery batteries.

While still preoccupied with its operational missions in Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is having to update its structure and composition - to increase by half the number of its brigades, to turn soldiers into fighters and to push ahead with the five-year plan to upgrade the land force. The plan, which began to be implemented last year, is eliminating, among other units, 36 field gun battalions, 10 air defense battalions, 19 armored battalions, 11 engineering battalions and 65 munitions units, and is adding, instead, 149 new Military Police units, 16 transport units to distribute fuel or water, eight civil administration units, four psychological warfare units, and 11 units to detect and identify biological warfare materials.

Behind these numbers stands one fact: The Pentagon does not view the Iraq affair as a deviation or a diversion from the main mission; Iraq and its like are the quality missions in the light of which they are preparing and planning. Previous American wars in Asia, even when they swelled and drew major world attention, were still considered campaigns secondary to the central arena in Europe - the third world war, cold or hot, nuclear or conventional, against the Soviets and their allies.

In the Americans' profit-and-loss balance sheet in Iraq, the price - reported every day - is threatening to blur the achievement that is being accumulated from a broader angle. It is an expensive, protracted, bleeding intervention, but all in all worthwhile, better than the realistic alternative. Contrary to the nonsense sometimes voiced, Iraq is not Vietnam.

Among the witnesses for the defense, who are out to contradict the Baghdad-Saigon parallel, is Colonel H.R. McMaster. The U.S. Army is an odd place: people in it read and write, and senior officers don't consider it beneath their dignity to learn from captains. The U.S. Army chief of staff, General (four stars) Peter Schoomaker, recommends that those under him read a book that McMaster wrote when he held the rank of major: "Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff & the Lies That Led to Vietnam."

McMaster, as an officer on active duty, the high-quality commander of an armored company that destroyed dozens of Iraqi tanks in the 1991 war, did not hesitate to publish a hefty tome that attacked both the political leadership and the military command of the mid-1960s as being guilty of concealing the moves and implications of increasing the military involvement in Vietnam. The ranking officer corps, Mcmaster wrote, should have resisted the method of gradual pressure that Johnson and McNamara exerted in North Vietnam as a series of violent signals that steeled instead of enfeebled the adversary.

Two years ago, on the eve of the offensive against Saddam Hussein, McMaster was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University - the home base of Condoleezza Rice. In his articles he complimented the Bush policy and the emerging decision to launch a military operation. After the conquest of Baghdad, when a new commander, General John Abizaid, was appointed as chief of Central Command, McMaster was made the head of his advisory team. Last summer he obtained a coveted post, a springboard to great things - command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which will be posted to Iraq in another few weeks for a yearlong tour of duty.

The U.S. Army, which knows something about public relations, recently played up the preparations of McMaster's regiment for its forthcoming mission in Iraq. At its base (Fort Carson, Colorado), an Iraqi village has been built, populated by 300 Arabic speakers who volunteered to fly out and assist the soldiers in their training, with the emphasis on familiarizing them with the local culture - manners, etiquette and the like. Of course, that was preceded by all kinds of well-publicized atrocities and abuses, but in order not to overdo the politesse, McMaster signed off on his order of the day to the troops with the regiment's traditional greeting: "Blood and steel!"

Abizaid, who himself entered the American (and Israeli) consciousness as a lieutenant colonel, commander of a battalion that reported its experiences in the refugee-ridden and distress-battered region of northern Iraq in the wake of the 1991 war, is an officer of a different type - experienced, sophisticated and with prior knowledge about his sector of responsibility. It is not his Arab origins that are important in this regard, but his studies in Jordan and his role as a United Nations observer in Lebanon - both in the 1970s - close on the conclusion of his studies at West Point. His familiarity with the political level and its preoccupations deepened in his two important posts in the Joint Chiefs, as director of Strategic Plans and Policy and director of the Joint Staff.

In both posts, one after the other, he was followed by General George Casey, who is now subordinate to him in Iraq - he too is a former observer on a UN force in an Arab country (Egypt), but unlike Abizaid is a graduate of a civilian university, Georgetown, in Washington, and no less than of its Foreign Service School. This intriguing combination of officer-diplomat-Middle East expert is not a guarantee of success, but it shows that in Washington they are now being cautious about arbitrary appointments at the top of the sector that within 20 years has become the core of American foreign policy and security.

Casey's arrival in Iraq, after already having served as vice chief of staff of the Army and as the replacement of a general junior to him, Ricardo Sanchez, reflected the recognition by President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and General Abizaid that the involvement in Iraq is not going to be short and is not going to be unique. What's needed there, in the field, is a commander senior enough to make local decisions and sufficiently coordinated with his superiors so that Abizaid can make do with supervision and turn to preparation of the coming campaigns of Central Command - against Iran, maybe against Syria - in addition to overseeing developments in Afghanistan.

Three goals

The purpose of the American activity in Iraq is threefold: to secure the establishment of the democratic Iraqi regime in elections now, in the vote on the constitution in the spring and in elections for the constitutional regime in another year; to make it possible for the United States to leave Iraq when the local regime is strong enough to fight its enemies; and to deny Iraqi territory as a haven for terrorism. On the way to achieving these goals, in a slowly improving learning graph, the Americans and those being aided by them are sustaining daily tactical losses, but not a strategic defeat, because Bush and Rumsfeld have remained in office and their determination to persist with their policy has not slackened.

Bush, Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice will be a combative team that interprets the Republican victory in the presidential elections and in Congress as endorsement of its path. That interpretation squares with the McMaster index for military involvement: the leaders did not operate like thieves in the night or from extraneous considerations (with Johnson, in addition to his struggle against the "Sino-Soviet bloc," there was also his desire to promote civil rights legislation) but rather presented, explained and persuaded. Time is not working against Bush: he has at least three long years to prosecute a systematic war against the centers of terrorism and their patron regimes, in Iraq proper and in the neighboring countries.

The soldiers who are falling in battle, both career men and reservists, are saddening American society, but not derailing it from its course. A quarter of them died of illnesses and accidents; the number of U.S. Air Force soldiers killed in operational action is less than the number of suicides in the force.

The U.S. Army, in the Field Manual it issued last October for warfare against subversion, reveals expertise in all the precedents of popular warfare and insurgency, in guerrilla warfare and terrorism, from Mao to the Mau-Mau, from Latin America to the Middle East. It is clear to the U.S. Army that military activity is not the be-all and end-all in a multi-channel effort whose center of gravity is the civilian population. The search for the applicable lessons brings the Americans to Israel frequently, in person (not long ago Marines officers visited the northern border and heard about the advantages of using trackers to detect arenas of explosive devices) or in their mind's eye. One of the Army's field guides, also a colonel like McMaster, is Thomas Hammes, from the Marines, who developed the idea of the "fourth-generation war" of the "early 21st century" in articles he published in professional journals and more recently in his book "The Sling and the Arrow" (Zenith Press, 2004).

Hammes writes, among other points, that the intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s succeeded in forcing a change of policy on Israel, because the Palestinians preferred the stone to the rifle and did not allow the Israeli army to make good on its advantage in forces and advanced weaponry. Yasser Arafat failed in the past few years because he was tempted into striking at Israeli society with suicide bombers.

Thus the Americans in Iraq are hoping-fearing that the stage of non-lethal popular resistance will soon arrive (and to that end have also prepared orders for the use of non-lethal weapons under cover of an armed force). That won't happen soon, and in any case the headlines are focusing on minor matters (protective underwear to guard the loins, robots, methods of neutralizing improvised explosive charges) and missing the real story: the Americans have not been made to flee from Iraq - in contrast to the suicide bombing that killed 241 Marines in Beirut and made them hightail it out of Lebanon in 1983. Bush will not give in. The road from Washington to Baghdad was shorter than the opposite direction, which might also pass through Damascus and Tehran.