AS BOMBS BEGAN falling again on Baghdad yesterday, Howard County Executive James Robey stood in the Lisbon Elementary School gym, hands in his wrinkled suit pants pockets, watching dozens of first- and second-graders square dance.
With parents standing around the edges of the brightly lighted gym, camcorders deployed, it was a scene from small-town America, about as far as you could get from Iraq and war.
"Do-si-do and promenade home," a recorded voice commanded from loudspeakers while a gym teacher directed the children, some dressed in kerchiefs and straw farmer's hats, as they walked one way, then the other, in circles.
"I came out to read to third-graders a few weeks ago and they invited me to come back to see their hoedown," Robey said as he visited Howard County's westernmost school, in what still passes for farm country in the suburbs.
On the radio, garbled voices of correspondents embedded in military units reported missiles flying overhead, air-raid sirens, sand in everything at their locations just inside Iraq. In the Lisbon gym, the biggest worry was bumping into your partner.
I think we all get the picture by now. The America those square-dancing children will know for the next half-century or so (and probably beyond) was the one that went on display yesterday - something like an empire, big and rich and willing to send its military about the world to smash perceived threats to allies, oil, commerce and regional stability. We might remain members of the United Nations, but we might also continue to ignore the will of that body because we disagree with it - and because we can.
The new world order that Bush the Elder spoke of was some post-Cold War dream of international unity against tyranny - a coalition for peace. Bush the Younger pretty much dropped that ideal yesterday.
And that's OK, as long as the majority of Americans sign on. But I don't think that we have, and I'm not talking about street protesters here.
There's a debate that hasn't taken place in this country yet, but it's kind of rolling around and in the minds of many Americans: We are really the baddest cop in the global 'hood, baby, but should that be our role in the world?
More of us would be down with it - if there were someone in Washington who could guarantee that we're not going to get stuck out there alone, with the rest of world (besides Tony Blair and the guy from Spain) taking a walk on us.
President Bush wants Saddam Hussein (and his doubles and his sons) out of the big chair in Baghdad. Great. We're all for it. But beyond that, Bush hasn't given us a clue as to what to expect, and it might be because he hasn't got one, and that's the scary part.
Which explains the lack of rah-rah this time. If you can't get heated up about kicking Saddam's butt - the way we did last time - it might be because of these new dynamics at play, the unilateralism of this war, and the what-next? of it.
You've been following along at home, right?
Saddam Hussein has defied the United Nations, so the United States must punish him - with an expensive war the United Nations doesn't want.
Robert Byrd, the Democratic senator of West Virginia, seems to have been the only politician willing to point to the gravity of this:
"This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world. This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time. The doctrine of pre-emption - the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future - is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense."
The America our square-dancing children will know - and perhaps serve, as part of the military and technological elite that will have to prosecute wars and maintain watch for other perceived threats to our international interests - is the one that went into action this week, pretty much alone. We ought to get used to it. I doubt that ship is ever turning around.