In an article published during the Iran-contra hearings, Tom Brokaw recounted how he was briefed by Oliver North before going down to Nicaragua for NBC. North showed Brokaw aerial photos, including one of a baseball field. To North, the field proved the sinister presence of Cubans: Nicaraguans, he said, do not play baseball. In fact, the photos only proved how ignorant North was about his enemy. Nicaraguans are crazy about baseball.

Now we have a similar example of ignorance at the top. In Haiti, attempts to hold the first free elections in 30 years were aborted when remnants of the Ton-Ton Macoutes, a bestial goon squad established by the old Duvalier regime, killed voters at their polling places. Dozens of people died, some of them hacked to death. According to several eyewitnesses, the Haitian army not only did nothing to stop the killing, it sometimes joined in.

To the United States, the role of the army came as a surprise. The administration had counted on the army to control the Macoutes and accepted the word of Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy's military regime that it would turn power over to a civilian government. As a result, the United States and other nations (Canada, France) kept aid flowing to Haiti and assumed a low profile. The Haitian army would keep things under control.

It didn't. Either by omission or commission, the military regime is responsible for the massacre of people who only wanted to vote. What's less certain is the role the United States played in this tragedy. In retrospect, its strategy was wrong. It got snookered by the military regime. It failed to apply pressure when it could have -- a suspension of aid, for instance, until elections were held. You could say that the United States simply made a mistake.

But did it? After all, in the months preceding the election, bands of armed men killed at will. In those same months, the army did little to maintain order. Journalists suspected the army was either acting in collusion with the Macoutes or simply looking the other way. It hardly mattered. People were being killed and a nation terrorized.

Mistakes will happen. But mistakes based on bad information or faulty analysis are unpardonable. The fact is that the United States did not seem to know what in the world was happening in Haiti. It staked its prestige and, to an extent, its good name on bringing democracy to that pathetic nation. Yet the colossus of the hemisphere did not realize that the very government it was aiding was intent on aborting the elections.

Over at the State Department, though, no one is willing to take responsibility for the Haitian tragedy. Elliott Abrams, the prevaricating assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, wants to have it both ways. He insists initial U.S. policy was right; only the results were wrong: "It looked as if things were very much on track, but the government clearly decided to handle it in a way that turned out to be inadequate. I don't think our policy backfired at all."

Oh! The murder of dozens of innocent people with the collusion of the military shows the actions of the Haitian government were "inadequate." To Abrams, those deaths plus the cancellation of the elections are not proof that American policy "backfired" -- although it certainly did not succeed. This is the sort of duplicitous gobbledy-gook against which George Orwell railed. Either the State Department and the CIA didn't know what was happening or the information was incorrectly analyzed. In any event, it was a botched performance.

Employees of the State Department and the CIA are only human -- some even heroic. (The U.S. Embassy's press officer, Jeffrey Lite, rescued journalists in areas where Macoute snipers were gunning for them.) At State, the budget has been slashed and the lives of diplomats made miserable. Even so, the United States should have known what was going on in Haiti. Policy should have been set on more than a handshake from Namphy.

Mistakes made by the government can be both catastrophic and tragic. The United States was surprised in Iran when the ayatollah forced the shah into exile. Later, it got Murphied into selling arms to the Khomeini regime -- and its pockets picked by middlemen. Its efforts in Nicaragua were spearheaded by a lieutenant colonel who didn't know what game the people play.

But baseball -- specifically Casey Stengel's question about his hapless New York Mets -- is an apt analogy for the administration's performance in Haiti. "Can't anyone here play this game?" Stengel asked. After what happened in Haiti, the answer is no.