The issue: With his heels dug in

Text: Geert Maarse / Photography: Ronald van den Heerik

Balkenende responded far too vehemently to the Iraq Report issued by the Davids Commission, suggests political scientist Ko Colijn. This caused a complex war to be reduced to a crisis in The Hague and a substantive debate to be suppressed. "Iraq? Iraq is not really a priority."

What went wrong following the presentation of the report? "Balkenende should have formulated his response differently. He should have thanked the Commission and let it retain its respectability, if only because he appointed it himself last year. But already within 15 minutes after the report was published, he played down Davids’ authority. He continues to insist that his actions in 2003 were impeccable, while the Commission suggests that with the knowledge available at the time he should have known that support of the Iraq war was legally unjustifiable. That is an untenable position. He would have been better off to say that he did not know that it was not legally sound, but that the probability of the existence of weapons of mass destruction resulted in a political necessity."

Why did he choose to respond this way?
“That has to do with stubbornness. We have a prime minister who does not easily admit when he is wrong and who consequently takes refuge in complex constructs. And furthermore there is a lack of comprehension concerning Davids' conjecture that there was no basis in international law for this war. He struck at the very heart of this conclusion put forward by a Commission heavily stacked with jurists. That gave his political opponents ammunition to create a crisis atmosphere.”

Stubbornness and a lack of understanding, these do not appear to be characteristics befitting of a prime minister.
“The unfortunate thing is that this is the third or fourth time that our prime minister shows his inability to rise above a crisis. He is unable to detach himself from the situation, receive the report with dignity and say: we are going to calmly think about this. He immediately takes sides and starts defending himself.

Is this sufficient reason for the government to break up?
“I am inclined to agree with Femke Halsema, who is suggesting that we are witnessing the gradual disintegration of a cabinet. In my view, the parties are no longer willing to give each other the slightest room to manoeuvre. Not only in relation to this conflict, but in relation to that other controversial issue as well: Urugzan. From now on every issue is a potential crisis. Two parties, the CDA and the PvdA, are mutually condemned, like two crabs in a bottle.

What can we learn from the Davids report?
“It is a reconstruction of the facts and at the same time it is a form of conscience purging. After seven years we indeed established a Commission, but in countries such as the US and Great Britain dozens of reports have already appeared. A report like this has the potential of disrupting cabinets, especially in the Netherlands. In the run-up to missions like this, it is necessary to line up political parties of different stripes. One camp speaks about rebuilding and the other, in the aftermath of 9/11, speaks of self-defence. Such different motives are ultimately hammered out into the familiar broad base of support with a great deal of improvisation. It remains a controversial war, but some kind of soothing consensus temporarily emerges. A Commission like this then picks it apart again after the fact. This brings back the irreconcilable differences between the pacifists and the hawks, thereby creating a time bomb for the next conflict. This is difficult but necessary, because in this country coalitions make such strange bedfellows. In English-speaking countries this type of forced compromise is superfluous, because the two-party system always leads to a clear majority."

Does this type of reporting affect the positions of the various political parties?
“No, but it does expose them once again. I think that reporting like this exposes the rediscovery of the painful areas that were already at play at the time the decision was taken. And the same thing could happen again with Afghanistan.

What you are really saying is that the political establishment is not learning anything from this.
“The conflicts that at the time had to be covered up under pressure are once again rising to the surface after a report like this. The difference is that the outcome is now known and that the relationship between the various parties in Parliament has changed. However, the political establishment is yielding to the temptation to battle it out one more time. In that sense they haven’t learned anything from this.”

Isn’t it strange that the report barely motivates greater attention to be focused on the situation in the country that is really at issue?
“Iraq? Iraq is not really a priority. But it is all too easy to dramatise the intense contrast between the consequences of that war and the narrow-minded decision-making process in The Hague on this issue, and bring it out into the open. This is not what the Commission is all about. You could say, however, that it is tragic that no one is currently talking about Iraq. And that Davids’ report has been pushed down to a lower priority because we have managed to reduce the entire issue to a crisis in the coalition."

Balkenende may have difficulty with the essence of the report, but ultimately the debate should really centre on the consequences of this war. What does this mean in terms of our role in Afghanistan and our potential position in relation to Yemen or Iran?
“This was not about evaluating policy, although that link is being made by academics. We are asking ourselves: are we really adopting the proper approach? If you are threatened by groups in far away countries, is it helpful to undertake far away expeditions or is it also possible to stop the threats closer to your immediate borders? The second question is: are you not biting off more than you can chew when you intervene in countries like that and link some kind of aftercare obligation to that intervention? There are a whole slew of political scientists who believe that such interventions never achieve the goal they were intended to achieve at the outset, let alone the idea that you can export products such as democracy, the western constitutional state and human rights. That scepticism has grown significantly in under five years. Add to this the fact that almost half of the number of states in the world is comparable to Afghanistan. If you don’t consider that a threat, then what kind of problems do you face up to? It is clear that we cannot intervene in all states in the same way we did in Afghanistan or Iraq. Serious questions are therefore being asked. This type of Commission indeed makes a contribution in this respect."

A lot of emphasis is now being put on international law. It would be nice if decisions were made on this basis. However, are these types of decisions not politically motivated more often than not?
“In my opinion that is the key lesson to be drawn from this report. You can make a fuss about the legal reasoning, but international law also has its shortcomings. When a country is governed by a villain with a ruthless, repressive regime, this in itself does not constitute sufficient reason to intervene. That villain must, according to international law, first of all represent a threat to international peace and security. In other words, there are certain conceivable circumstances under which the international political establishment will opt for a different route. This can be problematic for the Netherlands, because we are one of the few countries that have embedded the promotion of international law as a self-supporting goal in our Constitution. On the other hand, taking the position that international law has preference under all circumstances is also problematic.”

Someone is making this choice.
“The issue is about balancing international law and the raison d’état. Sometimes, survival and power-related considerations result in actions that are not consistent with international law. You could compare this with the police, who every now and then drives through a red light to apprehend a person committing a traffic violation. That violation ultimately is characterised as a judicial remedy. You have to be able to justify it. However, I would say: you may every once in a while go through a red light.”

The question then of course is: does this hold true for Iraq?
“In hindsight, the intervention there was exaggerated. Most people thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, while after the fact it turned out that he did not. The police therefore did not have the right to go through a red light.”

And the only proper response for a prime minister would then have been: “I was wrong. I thought he was a far more dangerous villain.”

Monday, January 29nd 2010 (week 4).

Every week in 'the issue' an academic from Erasmus University Rotterdam responds to a current topic in the media. 'The issue' is brought to you in cooperation with Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Ko Colijn (1951) received an endowment as professor of International Relations, particularly Global Security issues, with the Faculty of Social Sciences. He is involved in a diverse range of topics in the area of war and peace, ranging from terrorism to the international weapons trade. He has written commentaries for the magazine Vrij Nederland since 1978 and regularly appears as a defence expert on various radio and television programmes.