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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 May, 2003, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
'Punch them and come home'

By Justin Webb
BBC correspondent in Washington

Banner on USS Abraham Lincoln saying
Perhaps this banner is a little premature

Einstein Bagels on Wisconsin Avenue is a fine place for a coffee if you find yourself peckish in north-west Washington.

Einstein's is a combination of walk-in cafe and serious takeaway lunch provider for local businesses - fancy schmancy catering they call it.

Einstein's bubbles with energy, behind the counter the servers dart around, slapping the bagels down.

"Next in line!" they shout, and the line (the queue) keeps moving.

Einstein's knows that good food is not enough in urban America; it has got to be good food served fast.

There is even a "hate-to-wait" menu which allows you to pick up a dozen pre-packaged bagels and so avoid the time it takes for the server to get your order together.

This probably saves two minutes.

Three-second memories

But in this town, saving two minutes is a victory.

The belief that all reasonable people - given the chance - ought to behave as Americans behave is deeply engrained here
It enables you to get to your next destination to do something else in a hurry.

Americans know they have short attention spans, but they cannot concentrate for long enough to work out what to do about it.

There was a great New Yorker cartoon recently which had a television announcer saying: "We're going to have a discussion now about the need to concentrate harder on serious subjects - but first let's have a live update on a gruesome murder."

Marvel, then, at the patience of the US president, at the extraordinary restraint he has shown in waiting a full six weeks before declaring that the war in Iraq is over, or as Einstein Bagels would put it: "Enough war already".

Oh, I know the president's words actually meant that there was work still to be done et cetera, but you do not stand on a homecoming aircraft carrier in the California sunset and expect your words to be remembered.

This was a carefully choreographed moment of closure, a message to the American people that good had triumphed over evil, the troops are coming home, and petrol prices will soon be coming down.

Jobs half done

Incidentally, on the same day as the aircraft carrier speech, the war in Afghanistan was also declared won, but not many Americans noticed - they had long since forgotten that there had ever been a war there.

The consequences of this limited attention span, this need for events to be packaged and compartmentalised, are both good and bad.

On the bad side there is a risk, to put it mildly, that jobs are left half done.

On the good side, it does mean that things are not allowed to fester.

It also means - and I do not say this is good or bad - that the kind of long-term project that is the building of an empire is simply out of the question.

Americans resent their tax dollars being spent out of state let alone out the nation.

This was brought home to me the other day in a sleepy seaside town named Duck, in the state of North Carolina.

It was a shock to see Shia Muslims in Iraq choosing to celebrate their new-found freedom not by opening a Starbucks and washing their cars, but by walking barefoot to a holy site, all the while whipping themselves with chains
A man in his early twenties doing seasonal work there (but otherwise unemployed, he said) told me he was thinking of getting a passport (itself an unusual action in Duck) and going out to Iraq.

"That", he said bitterly, "is where the money is being spent by the Bush administration, all this reconstruction and assistance."

He supported the war "but we ought to have punched them and come home" he said, his alarming gestures disturbing a stray dog which had come to examine us as we sat on a bench overlooking the sea.

Punch them and come home.

That is a widely held view here of the correct way to deal with the various threats to America.

Cultural imperialism

Whatever else it is, it is not a blueprint for empire - at least not in the classic sense of controlling real estate around the world.

French President Jacques Chirac
France-bashing is now almost a national pastime

Cultural imperialism is another matter.

The belief that all reasonable people - given the chance - ought to behave as Americans behave is deeply engrained here.

That is why it was a shock to see Shia Muslims in Iraq choosing to celebrate their new-found freedom not by opening a Starbucks and washing their cars, but by walking barefoot to a holy site, all the while whipping themselves with chains.

This they would not do in Milwaukee.

Why they do in southern Iraq is a mystery - probably something to do with long term problems in the local economy.

The French however, have no such excuse.

The US-French spat which began in the run up to the war has been made all the more virulent, because it is about more than politics.

It is about a struggle for cultural supremacy: Nouvelle cuisine versus Dunkin Donuts, haute couture versus extra, extra large blue jeans, wealth versus breeding, and so the list goes on.

A White House aide was looking for a way of describing the Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry the other day and hit upon the simple and wonderfully descriptive claim: "He looks French."

However long their attention span, however parochial their interests, all Americans got that message and my bet is that Mr Kerry took a bad knock that day.



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