COLORADO SPRINGS - The three White House contenders didn't attend this week's conference on the U.S. military after Iraq, but their presence was felt.

That's because the next president won't just be deciding the fate of the Iraq war, but charting the U.S. military's course on personnel, weapons systems and equipment for the next generation.

"This is the most important election for national security in 40 years," said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank.

So it would help voters if some of the issues raised at the Heritage Foundation gathering - the U.S. role in the world, soft power vs. hard power, and improving the quality of life for military families - became part of the debate between now and November.

Of course, the future depends on Iraq. The way forward for a military that wins would be much different from one that has been defeated. Also, our enemies will have some say in all this. With those caveats in mind:

The U.S. role in the world. There's a good chance that future military budgets will be leaner, and with that will come a temptation to "get out of the global power business," as Goure put it. Some argue that we shouldn't be the global cop, that nations who enjoy the U.S. security umbrella should pay more for their own defense.

But neither John McCain, Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton is advocating disengagement so the more important question is, If we're staying in the global game, what's the strategy?

Former Sen. Jim Talent (R., Mo.), now a Heritage fellow, offered a nonideological mission statement for the United States: Lead a willing coalition of free nations to prevent or minimize the disruption of the international order by state or non-state actors. He urges a defense budget of at least 4 percent of GDP to meet the mission, up from about 3.5 percent now.

Addressing the more immediate threats, Steve Metz of the U.S. Army War College offered good questions:

How much of the future focus should be on Islamic extremism? Why? Is "war" the most effective approach?

Without deprecating the terror threat, how much focus should be on other threats?

When addressing the terror threat, how much emphasis should be on redesigning troubled nations? Or do we need an updated "containment" policy if redesigning states is too difficult or expensive?

Which leads to . . .

Soft power or hard? When you've got the biggest military and your State Department lacks initiative and successes, hard power becomes "the default option," says Dov S. Zakheim, a former Defense Department comptroller. But exercise that option too often and "activities are not planned, budgeted or prepared for." Demonstrate a lack of preparedness - see the United States in Iraq and/or Israel vs. Hezbollah - and you've squandered the deterrence factor of that big military.

But if State is to have the lead, it'll need more resources in order to deploy the forces needed to prevent wars, Zakheim says. And it should be pressed into working with Treasury and Defense on playing the "financial card" against adversaries. For example, in concert with allies, Zakheim explained, we can "talk to Iran while squeezing it economically under the table. . . . It's discreet but painful."

"If you use the hammer first, you undermine its purpose," Zakheim said. "You hit your fingers instead of the nail."

The troops. Wisely, this was not an all-theory conference on the future. Military officers reported the good news: The services are stretched, but not broken; retention numbers and morale are high. And the bad: Multiple deployments - for active duty, reserves and National Guard - make life tough for the troops and their families. No bonus or other incentive is going to keep someone in uniform if the family isn't happy.

Easing those burdens, while meeting the needs of a nation at war, must be on the debate agenda. One example: How do you move toward the Pentagon's hoped-for deployment schedule of one year on/five off for Guardsmen and reservists and one year deployed/two off for active duty troops? While fighting al-Qaeda globally? While facing Defense budget cuts?

The most direct advice for the next president came from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates: Don't just pick accomplished individuals when forming a national security staff. Pick a team. "Throw the organizational charts out," he advised. "It's relationships among people that make government work."

They also make sound policies that win wars.

Back Channels:

Begining next Friday, Jonathan Last's column, "One Last Thing," will appear on Fridays, and Kevin Ferris' column, "Back Channels," will appear on Sundays.EndText

Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.