Terry Golway

On a mid-winter’s night in April, I parked myself in front of a television set to watch the Boston Red Sox begin their annual exercise in bitter frustration, only to find myself thinking about Colin Powell. The connection will become clear in a moment.

The Boston Red Sox began the 2004 baseball season with a new manager. The old manager was forced from his position at the end of the 2003 baseball season, after he made the costly mistake of not replacing his starting pitcher, Pedro Martinez, in the late innings of the pennant-clinching game against the Yankees. It was one of those difficult decisions that can make or break a manager’s career: Do you stay with your effective but tiring starting pitcher, or do you phone the bull pen and bring in a fresh arm to finish off the enemy? Grady Little chose to stick with Martinez, who had kept the Yankees at bay all night long. But Martinez faded, and to the loud laments of Red Sox fans around the nation, the Yankees rallied, and Martinez surrendered a pennant-clinching home run.

Grady Little made a bad decision. Perhaps he had bad intelligencemaybe somebody on his staff told him that Martinez still had his fastball, or that his curve was still wicked. Whatever the case, Grady Little made a decision, lost the game, lost the pennant (to the despised Yankees, no less) and then lost his job.

Red Sox fans expected nothing less. From the moment Aaron Boone’s home run cleared the fence, ending Boston’s season, Red Sox fans knew that Grady Little would pay for his poor judgment. He was dismissed soon afterward.

Life is difficult for the manager or coach of a professional sports team. If you make a major mistake, you know you will be held accountable. A public outcry will leave your bossthe team’s ownerwith little choice. You will have to go.

Why isn’t that the case in American politics?

Among the many disturbing revelations from Washington in recent weeks was one from Colin Powell. The secretary of state admitted that he was mistaken when he told the U.N. Security Council that Iraq had mobile chemical weapons labs which were roaming the countryside to evade inspectors. These mobile labs were an important part of the secretary’s presentation to the United Nations as he argued the case for military intervention. The mobile labs, Powell now says, probably did not exist. He blamed faulty intelligence for this inaccurate assessment.

The secretary still has his job. We don’t know if the people who supplied the secretary with inaccurate intelligence still have theirs. We do know that no advocate of the invasion of Iraq has resigned or been fired. Nobody who told us about Iraq’s menacing weapons of mass destruction has lost his or her job. There has been no accountability for a decision that has led to chaos, disaster and death.

Apparently it is one thing to lose a pennant by sticking with a tiring pitcher. It is quite something else again to launch a war for reasons that are later proved to be less than truthful. Blow a chance at the World Series and you can expect a public outcry, followed by a loss of employment. But if you invade a country for reasons that are later proved to be based on faulty intelligence, or perhaps were spurious all alongwell, apparently we are more forgiving. We understand that everybody is human, and humans make mistakes.

There are times when I find myself wondering why, at this awful time in our lives, I watch ESPN instead of CNN. Now I know why: sports fans, at least, demand accountability. If you make bad decisions, you lose your job. Everybody understands the stakes.

That harsh reality apparently does not apply to Washington. It is astonishing that nobody has resigned or been fired in light of the Iraq adventure. Given what we were told, and given what we now know about Iraq’s weaponry, one might have expected the resignations of Secretary Powell or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. They assured us that Iraq possessed frightening weapons, and that those weapons inevitably would be used against us if we did not launch a pre-emptive war.

On that night a year ago when CNN brought us pictures of the first missile strikes against Iraq, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced breathlessly that the disarming of Iraq has begun. That was the administration’s messagewe were going to rid Iraq of its ability to threaten us. Fleischer, who issued these assurances and criticized skeptics, no longer is in government service, but not because he was driven out of his job. Instead, he is on the lecture circuit, speaking at colleges and otherwise taking full advantage of the fame he achieved as the White House spokesman who told us Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

If American politics were more like American sports, somebody in Washington would be out of a job because of Iraq. If today’s White House had the intellectual integrity of past administrations, somebody would have resigned as a point of honor.

We launched a pre-emptive war on an admittedly cruel and murderous dictator not because he was cruel and murderous, but because he was said to threaten us with terrible weapons. But he did not have those weapons after all.

Grady Little clearly is in the wrong line of work.

Terry Golway is a writer for The New York Observer.

Recently in Columns