WASHINGTON has a great - perhaps a too great - tendency to watch the rearview mirror. One result is that the vision ahead is often impaired. Every time something happens - or fails to happen - the nation's capital is absorbed in analyzing and debating the immediate past.
Most recently it was an attempted coup against Gen. Manuel Noriega in Panama. Evidence available to the public, at least, indicates that the coup was not well planned, and that the officers who led it wanted to retire, not harm, General Noriega. An outside request to intervene - that signal indispensable to the justification of presidential action - never came.
The president's decisions were prudent, dictated undoubtedly by the lack of precise information and, perhaps, also by the presence in Washington that day of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president of Mexico; a US military move into Panama without strong justification could have been politically embarrassing to this important official guest.
Yet for some days afterward, Congress, the press, and the public concentrated on a dissection of the White House actions, hour by hour, on the day of the coup. The actions and decisions of the president, the national security adviser, the secretary of state, the director of the CIA, and others were examined in detail.
An internal review of recent events in Panama is justified, encouraged by questions from outside. In a democracy officials must always be prepared to account for their actions. It is fair to ask, however, whether the extended public and congressional post-mortems of official acts that have now become so common in the nation's capital serve a useful purpose.
Too often such reviews begin with the premise that someone has made a mistake. Even in situations that hold no hint of violations of the law, the suspicion lurks of a ``coverup.'' Descriptions of circumstances on which outsiders base their criticism are highly selective; choosing those facts that support a thesis, ignoring others.
The political temptation to embarrass an administration - either from the opposing party or, in the case of the Republicans, from the right wing - is never far below the surface.
Many suggestions surface of what other actions - usually military - an administration might have taken. To charges of mismanagement are added those of weakness.
Seldom in these reassessments is the assumption made that officials are acting conscientiously and on the basis of their best judgment of the national interest at the time. The foreigners involved who may be proposing US actions or undertaking actions of their own may be unknown or unreliable.
The options available are, in most cases, neither as simple nor as attractive as critics may suggest. Neither is sufficient allowance made for the pressures and the uncertainties of crisis management. Information comes at such times in conflicting, unevaluated bits from a variety of sources. That which is provided by sources seeking to influence the United States for their own purposes must be evaluated in that light.
The backward look in Washington is also affected by the application of analogies from the past. Is this another ``Bay of Pigs'' - referring to President Kennedy's ill-fated invasion of Cuba? Is this another Mayaguez, or Desert One, or Iran-contra, or any one of several controversial presidential actions of the past?
The preoccupation of officials with these pressured reviews of recent actions consumes enormous amounts of governmental time and energy. Meetings must be held to sort out what happened. Papers are written and reviewed by several agencies and their lawyers. Inevitably congressional hearings will be held - often by several committees - and those involved, including the highest cabinet officials, will spend hours on the Hill.
Beyond the factors of time and effort, the prospect of post-mortems undoubtedly has an inhibiting effect on future executive action.
As they contemplate decisions during a crisis, presidents and their principal advisers cannot help asking themselves how their decisions will stand up under these automatic reassessments and how their own personal and political futures will be affected. If we do take military action, will it succeed? If it fails, what will be the consequences, domestically and internationally? If we do not intervene, what will be the fallout? Is this the best opportunity to deal with this problem, or will there be a better one?
An occasional glance at the rearview mirror is essential for drivers; but in concentrating on the backward look, they may fail to see serious obstacles ahead. The same may be said of governments.