It is said Americans hate Washington because it is so slow to respond to change. Political movements rise and fall, values change, moods shift, and meanwhile -- the gripe goes -- Washington keeps spinning the same, rusty wheels like some outmoded machine.
But surely these complainers aren't monitoring the breathtaking agility with which Washington is bending itself to the winds of crisis gusting out of the Persian Gulf.
Debates on issues ranging from the deficit to the Clean Air Act, from national energy policy to the future of "Star Wars" have been recast by participants, so that each side now sounds allied with the cause of demolishing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"No one has shifted position," said a congressional aide, who was referring to the tax debate. "Rather everyone who had a position has deftly incorporated events in the Middle East to buttress it."
Advocates of a higher gas tax from pre-crisis days say it would encourage conservation and reduce oil imports. Interests opposed all along to any tax increase say the economy is so imperiled by higher energy prices brought on by the gulf crisis that now -- as always -- is the worst time to raise taxes.
On the defense front, the head of the Star Wars program attempted a couple of weeks ago to cast the specter of a desert war with Saddam as a classic argument for his embattled program, an argument that struck critics as something of a stretch, since Star Wars is designed to knock long-range missiles out of the sky -- not take on a million-man army on the ground.
But, since Saddam seems to many capable of almost anything, Star Wars director Henry Cooper forged on. Iraq is developing a missile that could eventually launch a satellite, he said, and "it is not an extraordinary technical challenge to go from there to deliver weapons of mass destruction to essentially any place on earth."
Gordon Adams, director of the nonprofit Defense Budget Project, observed that "everyone is trying to hang an ornament on Saddam Hussein's Christmas tree." Star Wars, he said, is "the wrong ornament, wrong tree."
A seasoned defense lobbyist agreed. "The focus is conventional weapons and forces, not glamor systems," he said. "We're talking foot soldiers slogging through the desert, land vehicles running across the sand from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are in. Star Wars is out."
Saddam appears likely to have an effect on America's environmental policy as well. The Clean Air Act is awaiting action by a House-Senate conference committee, and a section calling for development and use of alternate fuels may well be strengthened as a result.
"The auto industry thought they had won this battle. Now it looks like it's coming back at them," one industry lobbyist said.
Alternate fuels would mean less use of gasoline and, therefore, less reliance on imported oil. There have been some industry rumblings that the economic downturn, now being exacerbated by the gulf crisis, makes this the wrong time to impose expensive clean air burdens on American companies.
The environmental lobby sees the crisis quite differently.
"It would be fairly dumb for the industry to link the Clean Air Act and the gulf crisis because most of the arguments cut the wrong way for them," said David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Alternate fuels are a way to break the stranglehold of imported oil as a source of fuel for automobiles."
The solution to pollution is often improved efficiency, which means less use of energy and thus less dependence on oil, the environmentalists point out.
"Every barrel of oil you don't use is another barrel Saddam Hussein won't have his hands on," said David Doniger, a leading lobbyist on the act who also works for the council.
But Hawkins said environmentalists are wary of hooking their wagon to Saddam. He said it could cheapen a cause that, in his view, needs no further justification.
One way of getting some distance on the current obsession is to travel back in time exactly a year ago, when President Bush unveiled his ballyhooed War on Drugs. Drug czar William Bennett appeared on every morning talk show that day, and some 70 congressional committees and subcommittees declared jurisdiction over drugs. Members of Congress literally tripped over each other heading to news conferences declaring their rage against the burgeoning drug culture.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of that event, Bush and Bennett held a White House briefing on the drug war. Bush said, somewhat unconvincingly after a vacation devoted entirely to the gulf crisis -- and golf and fishing -- that the drug war remains his No. 1 priority.
He added, however, "I know that other subjects are preoccupying all of us these days."