NEW YORK. — Congresswoman Lacey Davenport, on a quick junket to the part of Iraq still occupied by the U.S. Army, politely asked a displaced Kurdish man named Massoud whether his tunic was hand-stitched. He ignored the small talk and said: ''If the American soldiers leave, we will be slaughtered and bulldozed into pits.''
That was make-believe, sort of -- two frames of Tuesday's ''Doonesbury'' strip. But more than most front pages and most congresspersons, it defines where we are on our 215th Fourth of July. The United States of America is more necessary, more powerful and more respected than at any time since the end of World War II.
And we are more confused. What are we doing in Iraq? What have we done in Iraq? How do we get out of there? Where do we go next? How do we find our way back home?
We have said for a very long time, a bit disingenuously perhaps, that we did not want to be the policeman of the world. Now we seem to have become its police chief. Peoples in trouble around the world, like Massoud the Kurd, are going to dial 911 for the White House. The Cold War stand-off between the free world and the evil empire of communism has been replaced by a Pax Americana that could end with uniformed Americans standing on street corners around the globe.
I took the Pax Americana model from a series of articles last month in the International Herald Tribune, the American newspaper published now in more than 20 cities across Europe and Asia. The first two articles, by Joseph Fitchett in Paris and Michael Richardson in Singapore, carried headlines that spoke directly to what does look like a new world order:
* ''Postwar U.S. Ascendancy Sidetracks Europe's Aspirations''
* ''U.S. Pre-eminence Welcomed by Asians''
''The United States, capitalizing on its recent military victory, is transforming its advantage into political victory on every continent,'' said Jean-Michel Boucheron, head of the defense hTC commission in the French Parliament.
That sounds great, but as the Trib headline suggests, it means that the United States is taking on more, both militarily and politically, than any country can handle, no matter how powerful or rich. And we are not going to stay rich fighting other people's battles or making other countries' toughest decisions. The development of a Europe of democratic nations independent and interdependent was proceeding apace until the Gulf War and international dependence on U.S. military power. It is not to anybody's advantage to have that stalled -- waiting for the great Godot, a dominant America.
And Asia? ''Many Asian states want the United States to remain in the area as a stabilizing force,'' reported the Trib. ''But there is no consensus on the purpose of a revamped regional security network because there is no single threat commonly perceived across the region.''
The Asians, it seems, are perfectly willing to let young Americans patrol their borders while their young people go to Los Angeles and Tokyo to learn how to sell us their wares. It is remindful of what happened in Europe during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Worried about the cost of the American military presence in Europe and the beginnings of American trade-balance problems, President John Kennedy looked up during 1962 budget negotiations and said of Western European economic advances: ''You know what's happening? We're collecting atom bombs and they're collecting gold.''
This is the season for parades and patriotism. And the United States has reason to celebrate historic military and political triumphs -- not in trumped-up victories in Panama City or Baghdad, but in almost 50 years of our steady worldwide drive for free countries and free markets. But we will pay in pain and treasure if we think we can meet new expectations that we have the power and wisdom to march, with the highest of purpose, into any desert, any jungle, any city and find our way out again.
They say most candidates for high political office, waving their hands in victory, are thinking or should be thinking, ''What do I now?'' Countries are no different. We have won. What do we do now?
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.