Here is the silver lining: the sudden and terrible emergency in the gulf has had a devastating effect on this city's cliche's, habits of mind and arrogant, uninspected certitudes. We have, in other words, been destabilized. It didn't come a minute too soon. In fact, despite the unrelieved somberness of the situation Saddam Hussein has created, there has been something antic in the way it has disrupted normal and all but automatic patterns of response in Washington.

Time out of mind, those of us who live in this city have been listening to heart-rending complaints (1) from Congress that the executive branch is exercising far too free a hand in dispatching American troops abroad and (2) from the executive branch that Congress has it hamstrung in doing so and unable to move. Ha. If somebody on the Hill even squeaked as Bush made his commitments and deployed U.S. forces to the gulf, nobody else in town heard it. So the usual, predictable Hill-versus-White House thing didn't happen. It is only one of the classic confrontations missing so far.

The principal missing confrontation, of course, has been that between the United States and the Soviet Union. I think a lot of people on both sides of the 40-year-old traditional left-right argument in this country about the sources of the cold war and the proper ways of dealing with it were left stranded: the trusty press releases that had served so well in so many East-West connected regional crises before really were too far off the mark for even the most shameless politician to reissue. And although some of the Western allies show signs, as of this writing, of coming through -- by which I mean, not with money or troops, but with the kind of infuriating stinginess and self-absorption that has made them such frequent objects of assault -- this time, by and large, they too deprived the arguers-by-rote of their argument.

Countries we have become accustomed to feeling repeatedly betrayed by were in there pitching, supporting, hanging tough. The United Nations (the United Nations!) came through. Arab-bashers had to find some new formulation for their old venom: in this situation, there were Arabs and there were Arabs. Having just sternly explained to Nelson Mandela the error of his ways in accepting alliances of convenience with such lowlifes as Castro, Arafat and Gadhafi, we became best buddies with Hafez Assad, and we had high hopes for those dear old Iranian mullahs down the street.

The result of all this deprivation has been that Washington has, at least by its normal standards, fallen silent. Yes, there have been some pretty good fights on the op-ed pages about whose fault Saddam is, and whether it is more conservative to be for this entanglement or against it, and whether it proves or disproves what was being said about the defense budget (it proves whatever the writer last wrote). And there are also people who say this relative silence has come about only because Congress was out of town or it was August or something like that. But neither August nor absence from the scene has ever been enough to head off the squawking and orating if it seemed worth it. I think the stillness has been due to the oddest of Washington circumstances: people don't know quite what to think. They feel they are at the edge, or maybe in the middle, of something new, and they have found that almost none of the old analogies or pieties or shibboleths stands up.

For instance, when Secretary Baker last week used "NATO" as the vaguest kind of analogy to the type of operation that might be needed in the future in the gulf, he was at once widely admonished that the gulf wasn't Europe and Saddam wasn't the Soviets and our new pals in the region weren't our old European allies. Comparisons of this kind get ruled inadmissible. And many of the most tested old standby positions fall too.

Consider the staple objection, usually from the domestic left, that the United States is "on the wrong side." True, you get a few articles asserting that Saddam is mobilizing the true Arab spirit, while we as usual are backing the tyrants, moneybags, decadents and jerks. But Saddam's own style, not to mention his gory background, makes this an awfully hard peanut to push up the hill. There are a lot of bad guys in the world who can persuade the romantic and/or sentimental that they are Marxist Robin Hoods; but, worse luck, Saddam isn't one of them. And however deficient in Jeffersonian virtues the old Kuwaiti polity may have been, Iraq, in which political transition tends to be accomplished by clubbing, doesn't exactly qualify as the preferred model. This fact, incidentally, renders very difficult one current popular plan to offer a free election in Kuwait in return for Iraq's withdrawal. Why an election in Kuwait? the still, small voice of logic asks. An election in Kuwait at the behest of Iraq? Have we gone mad?

Other usually comfortable pieties to which we have all retreated when the subject of U.S. involvement in world affairs came up have proved no more reliable. Just say the words "other cultures," for instance, and, in some places, you have conveyed an idea of something good, to be respected and accorded every presumption of moral and spiritual worth, even if the culture includes practices we otherwise regard as morally and spiritually brutish. But Saudi Arabia, as everything to do with this episode, provides the confounding example. Are people who argue the case for cultural equivalence ready to defend the contempt with which the Saudis treat women? And speaking of women -- or women and children, anyhow -- even that old certainty that there was nothing wrong with giving them first call on the lifeboat has been shaken by the Saddam saga. It is outrageous that we are being made to accept the idea that there is something good about the Iraqi dictator's release of women and children hostages at this stage. By indirection and implication this suggests that it is more OK to keep the men, that somehow the act of holding on to them has at least a degree of legitimacy.

People are saying that American politicians aren't going to have the staying power to face down Saddam Hussein. They wonder how much time Bush has. I think he has as much time as it takes for the Washington talk machine to break through its intellectual confusion and find a new voice.