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Bush's America and Icarus's Flight

Are U.S. foreign policymakers flying too close to the sun?

November 7, 2003

Are U.S. foreign policymakers flying too close to the sun?

Remember the classic tale of Icarus? His father Daedalus built feather-and-wax wings so that the two of them could escape from the island of Crete.

Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, because its rays could melt the wax — and then, the wings would no longer be able to hold him aloft.

But Icarus was young and arrogant. He got carried away by his newly discovered power of flight. He eventually did get too close to the sun, disregarding his father's warning. The result was that he fell into the sea and perished.

This old myth is often cited as a cautionary tale, warning people against overconfidence and over-reaching. It is particularly timely now, describing the current U.S. predicament in the international arena. It should stand above all as a warning for politicians in Washington.

Just like in the myth of Icarus, there is a sense of novelty and freedom about America's power. To be sure, the United States has been a superpower since the end of World War II, at least. But only with the end of the Cold War did it become the only superpower — and could really spread its wings.

Suddenly, the United States no longer felt tied down by alliances and international agreements. And it had the military capabilities to test its new powers.

It was, no doubt, a heady feeling. But interestingly, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington is still testing its newly-found powers.

The same was true of Icarus. He must have spent a long time testing his wings and learning to fly.

The island of Ikaria — where Heracles is supposed to have found the boy's body — is located up in the Northern Aegean Sea, a long way from Crete.

There is an exuberance in America's enjoyment of its new position that is similar to the way the mythical Icarus must have felt as he flew for the first time ever.

And, just as in the case of Icarus, the military hegemony of the United States is heavily dependent on new technology. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is pushing through changes in the structure of U.S. forces that will make it much easier for the White House to strike almost anywhere on the planet with deadly speed and precision.

The myth of Icarus is about over-reaching and arrogance. But it is also about the dangers of playing with high-tech toys when they are used frivolously — or without the safeguards of wisdom.

Americans find themselves in just such a situation following their military action against Iraq.

Of course, they haven't crashed and burned. Despite mounting U.S. casualties, Iraq’s insurgents are far too weak to inflict more than military pinpricks on the world's only superpower.

But official Washington has certainly displayed the same kind of cockiness and naïvete that brought down Icarus in the end.

It's not as though U.S. leaders have not been warned. Of course, it may be a crude exaggeration to envision French President Jacques Chirac as a father figure for Mr. Bush of the type of Daedalus. Nor does he easily qualify for the role of ancient Greek sage and inventor.

Nonetheless, for all the animosity the French — and other allies, like Germany or Canada — have engendered in Washington, they did warn the Bush Administration about the foolishness of going it alone on Iraq. They also warned about the danger of disregarding global public opinion.

Coming from a Gaullist such as Mr. Chirac, warnings about the troups of empire-building by a democracy have the true ring of experience.

In the course of the 20th Century, the French repeatedly became embroiled in costly imperial conflicts in faraway places, ranging from Vietnam to Egypt.

Their final major misadventure, in Algeria 50 years ago, triggered a deep social crisis in France. It also caused an economic recession — and nearly subverted the country's hallowed democracy.

In fact, there was a constitutional crisis and the Fourth Republic ignominiously ceased to exist after only eight years.

There is a famous painting by Peter Breugel called “The Fall of Icarus.” It shows a man plowing on a high shore — and ships sailing the seas in the distance. And only somewhere on the horizon do you see a tiny splash made by the falling Icarus.

The problem with the United States is that, if it fails in its current Iraq policy, its failure will not go so unnoticed. On the contrary, it will make quite a splash — and will have serious repercussions for the rest of the world.

In particular, if the United States burns its wings in the pursuit of the sun that never sets over its nascent empire, it may then withdraw into isolationism once more. In this case, dangerous and unstable parts of the world will become even more dangerous and unstable.

For all their cynicism, Western Europeans have genuinely tried to warn the Americans about the folly of grandiose, over-ambitious plans hatched in the Pentagon and at the White House.

In that, they were quite self-serving, of course. Because a newly chastened United States that is no longer engaged in world affairs will be bad for everybody. Who knows, maybe Icarus, by refusing to heed his father's advice, set back the development of flight by thousands of years?