Streams

Just Look Decisive

Saturday, October 25, 2003

They say that kids can learn life lessons from little league sports. WNYC's Brian Lehrer had an experience recently that made him realize grown-ups can, too.

Brian: At my 11-year-old son's soccer game the other week, one of the moms volunteered to call the line. That means if the ball goes out of bounds, she has to see which team's player touched it last, and motion toward the goal that that team is defending, to signal who gets the ball. It can be a little confusing at first, and sure enough this mom made some tentative calls, signaling one way then the other, or a little vaguely, because she wasn't sure.

I happened to be standing near this beleaguered mother when, after a few of these tentative calls, the referee came over and gave her a piece of advice. He said: It doesn't matter if you get it wrong, as long as you look decisive. The words have haunted me ever since.

My first reaction was sexist. I thought, if the ref had been a woman, she probably wouldn't have been so quick to so sacrifice fairness and accuracy in the name of her own authority. A woman might have given that mom very DIFFERENT advice: maybe a little actual coaching, like if the orange team touched it last, signal to your left . Or, if you're not sure, ask for help. Let's get it right together

But then, I fretted, the problem is much bigger than that.

If it were only this one referee concerned with appearances more than with right or wrong, it wouldn't really matter much. So what if my child, or some other 11 year old, gets cheated out of a Saturday morning victory. It's not the World Cup or anything. And they'll get over it.

But then I started thinking of all these other examples of the same attitude, and its consequences.

Like the war in Iraq. Look at all the trouble the president and his people are in because they too thought, It doesn't matter if you get it wrong, as long as you look decisive. If they had told the American people, Look, we're not sure if Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. There's no conclusive evidence. But if he does have them, it's a real risk for us in the post 9/11 era. Of course, going to unilateral war has its risks too. If they had said that, maybe we could have had a rational debate in this country about which risks are worth taking and which aren't.

But instead, there were Mr. Bush and his people night after night, demanding that they were SURE he had weapons of mass destruction, they were CERTAIN he was doing business with Al Quaeda, that there was no DOUBT we would win the war easily and for not much money, and OBVIOUSLY the Muslim world would be inspired by seeing us install a democracy by force.

Well NOW look at them. While the President derides the media in public for filtering out the good news from Iraq, poor Donald Rumsfeld has to issue a memo in private expressing his real, uncertain feelings about how the war on terrorism is going. That memo leaked out this week, from a frustrated Rumsfeld himself, many believe. It contained quotes like these:

We are having mixed results with Al Quaeda . and Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. On Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be a long, hard slog.

Mixed results? Long hard slog? Can't tell if we're winning? These are not words that leaders are supposed to use. Not after they predicted certain triumph.

I'm sure we're in this fix for many complicated reasons. But maybe one of them is that if the White House had expressed some doubt BEFORE charging headlong off this with-us-or-against-us cliff, the original policies might have been more nuanced and more successful. We might at least have some friends left.

But maybe, once upon a time, when our national leaders were innocent young soccer volunteers, some referee came over to them and instead of saying ask for help said, It doesn't matter if you get it wrong, just look decisive.

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