by Harry van Bommel
Last week the Davids Commission presented its report on the events leading to the war against Iraq and the Netherlands’ support for it. A report which pulled no punches. I was pleasantly surprised by the unambiguous conclusions, but at the presentation something else went wrong. This came about as a result of the principles themselves. Commission Chair Davids and Prime Minister Balkenende both came out with remarkable gafs.
Chairman Davids was the first to speak. He compared his commission’s work with the fight which the young David of Bible fame had put up against the giant Philistine Goliath. This struggle symbolises the triumph of good over evil. David floors Goliath with a pebble which he fires from a sling to hit the head of the hugely strong Goliath. This immediately opened Davids to the accusation that he saw his commission as the good and Balkenende as the evil. Presumably Mr Davids, learned in law though he may be, lacks an adequate knowledge of the scriptures. Otherwise he would never have put it quite like that.
Balkenende committed a still greater blunder when he summarily dismissed the report’s conclusions. Parliament had been neither incorrectly nor inadequately informed and when it came to the question of whether the invasion was justified, opinions had always differed, he said. He said this when Davids had given a plain and simple opinion, while there is almost no expert on international law who would dare to call the invasion legal. Of course this led to a crisis which Balkenende just barely survived. For now.
We still have to wait for a complete reaction to the report from the cabinet. It is already known that this will involve a life-and-death struggle, albeit in a figurative, political sense. It is in no sense certain that the cabinet will survive. That became clear on Tuesday during the hearing which Parliament held with the Davids Commission. There were numerous open questions including the matter of whether Balkenende was in for a difficult time. He has acknowledged that ‘with hindsight’ it must be admitted that political support for the invasion was incorrect. The debate on the invasion’s legitimacy thus returns in full. And in doing so it will reveal the difference of opinion between the two main governing parties, Labour and the Christian Democrats.
It is a political incantation to say that you would have done something differently with the wisdom of hindsight. It is also something of a lame excuse, because what you are actually saying is that at the moment when a decision was taken, you did not have this knowledge. The heart of the matter is that Balkenende, at the point when political support was offered, could and should indeed have had such knowledge. So this argument is empty, and indeed hypocritical. The discussion of the Davids report promises fireworks, I’m convinced of it.
Commission Chair Davids will also indeed certainly have thought during the last few days that with ‘hindsight’ he might have presented his report without the reference to David and Goliath. This comparison was unsuitable and incorrect. But compared with the borrowed time on which the cabinet, with this report hanging over it, is living, and its political support for the war, this remains a small imperfection which scarcely matches Balkenende’s faults. Because political support for an illegal war is truly a political mortal sin. Balkenende has not yet been brought down by the Davids Commission but it would have nevertheless been better had he, on the basis of the report, taken the honourable course himself.