The debate in Washington has as much to do with self-justification as with trying to see things clearly.

People have different priorities when it comes to deciding what to save from the proverbial burning house -- the cat, the jewels, some heirloom or other, the ancient family photographs. In political Washington there is no question what comes first: whatever documentary evidence may exist that you were right in the last argument you engaged in. You would save your position and to hell with the cat -- that is the way it is.

This is not what anybody would call a particularly endearing trait, though it can be a pretty funny one to observe. Lately, however, in the context of the Gulf war, it has become less funny and potentially, anyway, more menacing. We may all be too dug in, too protective of our old positions and thus our pride, to react to events honestly or even to see them clearly. I don't think this stage has yet been reached, but I sense that Washington is right at the edge of it. Administration officials, journalists and members of Congress, TV head scratchers, think-tank types and other accredited members of the kibitzing class were all terribly exposed on this one. Their positions were clear. Much of the argument among them now seems to have almost as much to do with retroactive self-justification as with trying to get an accurate reading of events.

The first form this preoccupation took was a lot of gleeful speculation, starting about week three of the war, as to whether the members of Congress who voted against giving Bush the war authority and for prolonging sanctions instead might have made a fatal political mistake. Some who had prominently voted this way seemed actually to be backing off some and putting out after-the-fact reservations, "revising and extending" their remarks as this is called in the Congressional Record. That was premature. For by week four, when the struggle seemed more intractable and talk of a ground war increased, it was the prospective political disaster of those who had supported the war that was being chewed over. A host of subarguments in the same vein were being pursued: who had been right and who wrong about the production of certain weapons that were proving efficient in the war. Should we thank Reagan for the Patriot missile and beg his pardon for even questioning his defense budget? Or were these especially efficient weapons in fact the outcome of earlier Carter administration decisions?

Certainly the debate over granting the president authority to use force was the source of most of the assertions, assumptions and predictions that people are trying to protect now. In these debates the side that wins is at a disadvantage in that it soon becomes clear whether it was right or not. Those of us who believed the passage of the resolution could help the president to stare down Saddam Hussein were proved wrong. Now it remains to be seen whether the more dire or less dire predictions about what war itself would produce come to pass. This is the treacherous time -- when great stores of honesty and detachment are called for in viewing events, so that you don't see only what you had predicted or somehow cook your own observations to uphold your point of view. In the discussion of the number of American and allied casualties so far you can hear the intrusive note of self-justification -- "My, how remarkably low they have been," says one side ... "Ah, but just wait," says the other.

Back in the days when the West was full of "sovietologists" who had never been to the then inaccessible Soviet Union or who had fled from it in their youth, there used to be these hilarious articles of dead-wrong analyses and predictions eventually followed by absolutely shameless claims to have been right, even after events had totally discredited whatever the guy had written. It comes with the human territory and is not unique to Americans. But we have developed a politics in which people are forever being tempted into the most artificial, transparent justifications of their prior position. Whichever party is out of power sees only tragedy and gloom in the country under the stewardship of its opponents, tends to read all the data in the most pessimistic possible light and periodically reminds us that it told us this was going to happen.

That is more or less the situation with domestic issues. On foreign policy it is different -- and worse. Over the past couple of decades right and left have been so often caught out and disproved by the way things turned out overseas that you would think they would at least be more cautious the next time around or, better yet, admit error and look for its cause. But of course you would be wrong.

In fact we have all but perfected techniques of claiming to have been right when we were most unambiguously wrong. Once people like Fidel Castro or movements like the Khmer Rouge are revealed to be what they have been all along, it will be argued that actually they started as something different and better, but that somehow stupid American actions turned them into what they became. That's on the left. On the right there continues to be turmoil over how a totalitarian complex could collapse and yield up its foreign empire when according to most holy conservative doctrine this was not possible. The answer's not completely in yet on this one, but be assured, they're still working on it. Meanwhile a certain relief can be discerned on the right that some of the worst types are reasserting themselves in Moscow and that the Baltics are being oppressed. A certain number of people probably should be asking themselves whether they'd rather save Lithuania or save their own face, just as, concerning the Gulf war, people on both sides should be forcing themselves to double-check their interpretations against their predispositions, to be sure they are not -- yes -- wishing the vindication of disaster or inventing the rosy prospect to hide a vista of terrible bloodshed and destruction.

The country is in a war, but it still has plenty of choices to make at every step of the way. It is hard to think of any time when it would be more important to bring your clearest, most honest and unencumbered vision to the events that are unfolding. We are not on an express train to one particular outcome. Much remains to be interpreted, debated, decided. I wish we could have a moratorium on politicians' "colorizing" of the news from the Gulf and a kind of cease-fire here at home on the self-vindication front. I wish we could put the egos and the I-told-you-sos in cold storage for the duration.

Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.