The image helps give some meaning to the Babel of uncertainty that has characterised Washington's response to the latest crisis in Bosnia. A report in Wednesday's Washington Post, quoting "sources who asked not to be identified", portrayed a bewildered Bill Clinton presiding over an administration tearing itself to pieces over Bosnia. Bob Dole, the Republican senator, drily remarked during a congressional hearing on Bosnia last week that White House policy had to be checked hourly.
While the Republicans used the opportunity provided by the televised hearing to heap public scorn on what they described as Mr Clinton's adolescent leadership, they themselves differed in their suggestions as to what America should do next. Richard Lugar, a Republican senator mounting a bid for next year's presidential election on the strength of his foreign policy expertise, was the lone voice advocating all-out military intervention "to restore peace". But otherwise it was variations on familiarly evasive themes: deploy troops only to help pull out UN forces; dispatch the marines for a quick operation if the allies are trapped; launch more air-strikes; lift the arms embargo.
Through the din, however, one note rang through clear as a bell: we have no business in Bosnia, let's find a way to wash our hands of the whole ungodly mess.
The impulse among Americans today, as picked up by the opinion polls and echoed in the corridors of Washington, is to return to their historical roots. America was founded by people who left behind political, religious or economic oppression to create a land of opportunity. When they decided to cross back over the water to take part in the Second World War it was with great reluctance and only after Pearl Harbor made it clear there was a threat to their national interest. After the war Americans persuaded themselves that Commu- nism was another threat to their way of life. So they deployed vast armies in Europe; waged war in Korea and Vietnam to stop the global domino set from tumbling and fought surrogate or covert wars in Latin America and Africa to protect the American way of life. Ronald Reagan believed that his lavish assistance for the Contra cause was necessary to frustrate a Nicaraguan plan to send a column of Soviet tanks across the Rio Grande into Texas. That nightmare has now faded. Mailer's metal filings no longer line up and point the same way. America is suddenly a different place.
While they were conducting their crusade against Communism, Americans failed to notice that during the Eighties they had accumulated a trillion- dollar deficit, that the inner-city ghettos were spawning a criminal threat far more tangible than any the Soviets had ever posed, that sex and violence in the movies, drugs on the streets and an epidemic of unwed teenage mothers were plunging the country into what is seen today, by common consent, to be a national moral crisis.
The Gulf war, like the Falklands war for Britain, offered a distraction from the problems at home, but it is striking how quickly the success of Operation Desert Storm has been forgotten by the American public while the catastrophe of Vietnam - now 30 years old - continues to haunt them and continues to shape American foreign policy. In so far as the Gulf war left a legacy, it was this: if America must get involved in a foreign expedition it should be with a minimum of casualties, but best not get involved at all. And this is true not only for the man on the Kansas City omnibus, but for all the movers and shakers in Washington. The experience of George Bush in the Gulf war demonstrated that foreign policy triumphs, however spectacular, have only limited value when it comes to the paramount business of American politicians - winning elections.
General Colin Powell knows that. One of the principal architects and heroes of that victory, he has been addressing audiences all around the country, testing the waters for a presidential run next year. He has not been avoiding foreign policy issues altogether, but his main theme is always that "there's something missing in our national life, that we're losing our moral compass".
By the same token, the clamour for General Powell to enter the 1996 race rests on a widespread unease about politicians of a kind that British people would recognise, except that it is far more bitter in the US. Bill Greider, author of a number of books anatomising the American power establishment, speaks of "the mutual contempt" with which politicians and public view each other. For many Americans Washington has replaced Moscow as the national enemy - a view expressed in its most extreme form by the Oklahoma bombing. That event brought home brutally to the American public and its politicians the message that this is no time to be engaging in foreign adventures (unless, of course, our own people are in danger, in which case, as the dramatic rescue of the downed American fighter pilot last week showed, you act without hesitation).
Washington's Bosnian failures grow directly out of this. The policy muddle that followed the air strikes which Mr Clinton himself encouraged two weeks ago - they provoked the Serb hostage-taking - was merely the latest proof that the US is trapped between its self-image as the leader of the free world and its collective lack of stomach for the travails that the job entails. The US may be the world's only superpower, but when the questions are asked, "Is our national interest affected in Bosnia?" and "Should we deploy ground troops to help bring an end to the Balkan civil war?" the answer is a resounding "no". And most importantly, that answer comes not only from the general public but from very senior politicians.
Murmurs are being heard in Washington these days, in liberal and conservative circles alike, to the effect that it is time for the Europeans to grow up, stop turning to Uncle Sam for the solution when they have a problem. The thinking goes like this: "God knows we've done our bit for old Europe these last 50 years. But the reason we Americans are here in America is because we didn't want to be over there in Europe in the first place, and this is something we never forget. Let's leave it to them, with that European Union they're so proud of, to sort out their own problems. If the British in Bosnia find themselves in a jam, why should we come and help? They've got plenty more soldiers. So have the French. And what about the Germans? Why is no one calling on them to come and sort things out? Why us again?"
It is not yet fashionable for politicians to express such views. When Senator Lugar complained last week that Mr Clinton had "marginalised what is the most powerful country in the world", he struck a chord, for Americans still like to think of themselves as the defenders of Western civilisation. But the truth is that they don't want to follow through. The American public is ignorant and indifferent about foreign affairs, but that has long been the case; today, however, their politicians have lost the will to give leadership, to persuade voters that there are causes for which it is worth risking American lives on the other side of the world.
Because he is attempting to resist this trend towards isolationism, Mr Lugar has no chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. Americans may still be ready to participate in the global economy, since they can make money out there, but unless there are votes and campaign funds to be secured at home - as in the cases of Ireland or Israel - then they don't want to know. Mexico is another exception, and one that eloquently proves the rule: a senior official at the State Department recently remarked that developments in Mexico, a volatile country with a 2,000-mile border with the US, preoccupied the minds of America's foreign policy guardians more than the whole of Europe combined.
The symptoms of isolationism are everywhere: there's the appointment earlier this year of Jesse Helms, an arch-conservative Southern dinosaur, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; there are bills now in Congress designed to slash foreign aid - already the smallest among the G7 countries as a percentage of the national budget - not only to Africa, but also to Russia; and, most eloquently, there's the evidence of the television ratings, which has persuaded the American networks to slash their spending on foreign news coverage. Tom Brokaw, a CBS news anchor, lamented last week that his viewers' minds were "now preoccupied only with the direction of the American dream".
Just what that direction will be is anybody's guess at a time when America's metal filings are flying all over the place; when conservative Republicans are revolutionaries at home and peaceniks abroad; when politicians who favour the commercial sale of assault weapons decry the violence in Hollywood films; when the zeal of pro-lifers to stop abortions is matched only by their determination to preserve legal executions; when America has the widest gap between rich and poor in the developed world but Congress wants to kill welfare programmes and cut taxes "to save our children from ruin".
But clumsy, manic, bedevilled by vested interest as America's efforts to solve its problems might be, one lesson everybody has learnt is that the answer to those problems does not lie abroad. Today America's enemies lurk within its own bor-ders. Those in Europe, or elsewhere, who cling to the idea that the US cavalry will ride to the rescue the next time they are in trouble are deluding themselves.