Richard Reeves

Rip Van Winkle in Washington

WASHINGTON -- There is something of a Rip Van Winkle quality about returning to Washington after a long summer. I did not have to sleep for 20 years to find a totally different place then the one I left in June.

When I left the capital, the United States barely had a president. George W. Bush seemed a rather diffident fellow who appeared every once in a while to try to rally his partisan troops with a few short and hesitant sentences on television. His election was barely accepted and his competence regularly questioned. Now the man in the arena has the approval of 90 percent of his countrymen and women. The opposition, very loyal now, treats him as a reigning warrior statesman.

When I left, the worst things you could say around here were "big government" and "more spending." Now the government is happily disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars for new weapons of self-protection. Folks in power are clamoring for deficit spending, not only to rebuild lower Manhattan, bail out the corporations and build up the military and intelligence services, but also to revive a sagging national economy in ways advocated by John Maynard Keynes. I have yet to hear anyone mention the mantra of May, "market forces."

When I left, Washington, and most of America, too, was pushing a cool "unilateralism" around the world. The sole surviving superpower, it seemed, needed few friends -- and if any foreigners resented that, we deemed it envy. Now the warrior statesman and his court are promoting coalitions with peoples and nations no one here has pronounced correctly for years.

When I left, the idea that the federal government should take on a few new jobs -- say, assuming responsibility for airport security -- would have been laughed at on Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol. One of the big local debates was over reopening that very street in front of the president's house -- the closed section was an inconvenience for both locals and tourists. Why did the only superpower, the essential nation, need protection? After all, the global economy depended on us; we could tell other countries how to run their businesses and their elections -- and those folks from unpronounceable places loved us just as we were. They were smitten with our decency, our generosity, our compassion, and our movies and basketball, too. And why not? We meant no harm.

Then, of course, a handful of those folks attacked us. They hated us, and it seems now they were not alone. People around the world expressed sympathy for the great loss of life on Sept. 11, but there was often a side-mouthed undertone that we deserved it because we were too rich, too arrogant, too selfish, too materialistic, too unilateralist.

Suddenly there is another superpower: fear. It is hard to absorb the idea that people want to hurt us -- and some of them may be living right next door.

Washington right now is like a huge re-education camp, and the president himself is the student-in-chief, riding the same learning curve as most other Americans. Who are these people? What do they want? Is it conceivable that they don't want to be like us?

City and country are awakening to a new world, just as ol' Rip did in Washington Irving's 1819 tale of a farmer who slept through the American Revolution.

Here, we dozed through the 1990s. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the only remaining superpower turned away from the world, something we have often done since Rip Van Winkle awoke. Sure there were "ragheads" out there someplace who didn't get it yet, but they would once they held a Yankee dollar. The unspoken American theory was that the globe would prosper with us -- and we would protect them from themselves. The market would provide.

Then we went home; most of us did, anyway. We elected presidents ignorant of foreign affairs, and then they appointed friends and fund-raisers as ambassadors and occasionally sent out the military to show the flag in some unpleasant places. Most of that work was done from the air -- at least after our amazingly incompetent entry into Somalia in 1992 -- and the military's mission amounted to self-protection above all. The press closed its foreign bureaus to make more money. No one cared about the news from Afghanistan. The Taliban might as well be an underarm deodorant.

It is a sad time here, because America is on the defensive. After the shock and mourning, all the inspiring words and talk of the moment really amount to doing our best to get our world back to where it was the day before Sept. 11. It seemed simple then, but now we know that was self-delusion, and we have to take a look at a map of the world as it really is.

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