Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“In view of my present knowledge …”

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.


Simon said...

Henk I understand where you are coming from but the problem is, are we able to know or tell the difference between cases where it is sincere or contrived?

Since partisans can look at a news item and both see it as biased towards the other side I'm not too sure we can.

To the other side an individual who was sincere in trying to make the correct decision will be making similar statments to the one that isn't sincere and will look for all purposes as they are lying.

Maybe independents have a better chance of being objective but they are usually in the minority and as Clinton showed they ahve their own pet interests.

Lastly don't forget the Attribution bias.

HbdW said...

Hello Simon,
Thank you for your reaction. What you say is true, but the point is, I think, that a politician as a politician is always responsible for his or her past acts. When s/he says "In view of my present knowledge, I would have done it otherwise", it sounds like a try to escape this responsibility, whether s/he is sincere when saying it or tries to hide his/her real opinion. Of course, everybody can make mistakes but for keeping politics as honest as possible, politicians have either to defend what they have done in the light of the knowledge they had at the moment of the decision or s/he must resign. Just such remarks as the one by Mr. Balkenende make that many people see politics as dirt or at least full of tricks and humbug. But, of course, I know that we do not live in a paradise. Politicians are as human as humans are. Henk

Simon said...

The other problem is that often in politics one cannot own up to even small mistakes as opposing parties and the media just try to point score and hound any honest politician.

HbdW said...

Yes, of course. But my blog is about a reaction by the Prime Minister on the report of an official committee established by the Dutch government itself about a decision as supporting a military another country.