WASHINGTON — IF THE GULF crisis ends in a quick victory with moderate (by the harsh calculus of war) casualties, look for loud choruses of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" throughout the land.
A back-down by Saddam Hussein would be greeted by a similar jingoistic euphoria. There's a lot of Vietnam frustration still abroad in the U.S., as witnessed by the elation over such piddling exploits as Grenada and Panama.
President Bush will become a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt if we prevail over seedy little Iraq. America once more will be tall in the saddle, the only superpower in town.
All of which would be relatively harmless but for one thing: It will dispatch us into the 21st century with our eyes resolutely fixed on the past, on challenges now as removed as Hitler and polio.
By nature, breeding and experience, Bush is a disciple of Pax Americana, the theme we pursued from WWII to the collapse of communism. His orchestration of the gulf crisis came chapter and verse from the Cold War manual. He, the Pentagon and dozens of think tanks have analyzed all the mistakes of the past and perfected the science of crisis management. Trouble is, the crises are last year's model. We've learned how to function in an era as dead as yesterday's newscast.
The military-industrial complex couldn't be happier with this turn of events. A new role as global constable is the only way it can justify continuing to build the Rube-Goldberg weaponry that has nearly bankrupted us. Japan and Germany, along with the rest of Europe, have equal cause for glee. They've grown accustomed to our carrying the defense load, leaving them free to concentrate on economic and technological progress.
It doesn't have to be. As long as we lived under the Soviet threat, we were forced, for the sake of our own safety, to arm to the teeth.
Now that we're no longer mortally threatened, it's time to focus on rescuing our educational system, rebuilding decayed infrastructure, restoring productivity and regaining momentum in technological innovation. We need to build a growing economy in a fairer society so kids once more can look forward to living better than their parents.
We can't neglect security. This is still a dangerous world in which force whips justice and morality at every test, most recently in Kuwait. But we cannot and should not set ourselves up as high sheriff of the whole shebang, the path Bush predictably is following.
That means turning peace-keeping over to a world body, which we must support but cannot dominate. It also demands reducing our vulnerability to trends we cannot deeply influence. Energy for example. We would not now need to risk lives in Arabia had we pushed the energy program we began in the '70s.
Instead we drowsed happily through Ronald Reagan's Rip-Van-Winkle '80s, a pleasant daydream from the Metro-Golden-Mayer lot of Andy Hardy's salad days. As a result, we're far behind in peaceful areas that once were our specialties. Donning a badge as the Matt Dillon of Bush's anything-but-new "New World Order" is no way to catch up.