Recently an official committee established by the Dutch government criticized the political and military support by the then Dutch government to the American-British attack on Iraq in 2001. One of the main conclusions of the committee was that the military attack on Iraq had not been authorized in a proper way by resolutions of the United Nations Security Council according to international law. Mr. Jan Peter Balkenende, then and now Dutch Prime Minister (albeit then of another government coalition) reacted: “In view of my present knowledge, I should have decided differently”. Since then, “everybody” uses the expression “in view of my present knowledge” here.
Are the words by Mr. Balkenende a right reaction? I think they are not. Of course, it is true, when we look back on what we did in the past, we often think that we did wrong. We have new knowledge that puts our past motives and reasons in another light; our opinions may have changed; we see the consequences of our action; we see how other people have reacted on what we did; and so on. In short, we have become older and wiser. The problem is, however, that at the moment we have to take a decision, often we cannot postpone it until we have better information. And, of course, we can know its consequences and how other people will react only for a part. We simply have to decide now and we have to do it on the basis of what we know now. Later, we may have excuses that we took the wrong decision, and these excuses may be good excuses. This is not only true for the man in the street but also for politicians. However, politicians are supposed to take the right decisions at the moment that they have to be taken. In case they do not have enough knowledge for a well-considered decision, they are supposed to collect more information. If they have to act in a hurry, they have to be able to explain why they decided the way they did in the light of the information then available to them. It is no excuse to say later “If I had known then what I know now, I would have acted otherwise”. That is avoiding responsibility, for a politician is supposed to take the best decision right at the moment, not later, and he or she is responsible for that decision in that situation. If we would accept an excuse like “If I had known then, what I know now”, it is like: “ ‘In view of my present knowledge, I wouldn’t have been in jail now’, said the prisoner, and he was released”. It does not work that way, neither for a prisoner nor for a prime minister.
note. Since I finished this blog and before its publication, the Balkenende government has tendered its resignation. In view of my present knowledge of it, I wouldn’t have written this blog.