The conclusions in the Davids report have been called 'vehemently critical', but that’s a bit over the top, thinks the Groningen professor of Contemporary History Prof. Doeko Bosscher. So will there be a cabinet crisis after all? ‘In that case the PvdA and the VVD are going to have to swallow a lot of hypocrisy.’
By: Doeko BosscherThe thorough report by the Davids Committee about Iraq is fascinating reading and learning material. It offers an insight into what the Netherlands was like after 2002 – a fundamentally divided society, ruled by a hyper-nervous political class.How this came about is only summarily explained by Davids et al., but that was not their remit, after all. Everything reveals that the politicised decision-making process in the Iraq question was partly the result of the chaotic political relationships into which the Netherlands had manoeuvred itself since the turn of the new century. Only a few people – and it really was only a very few – tried consistently to keep their heads cool and the political debate pure. The rest just stood by and watched.
The first reactions described Davids’s conclusions as ‘vehemently critical’. However, a closer look reveals that that is not only exaggerated but also politically motivated. The hope of many that this report would reveal numerous skeletons in the closet has not been fulfilled. What you then seem to get is terms like ‘vehemently critical’ being used to hide and cushion the anticlimax.
With regard to one of the ‘vehemently critical’ conclusions of Davids et al., the lack of an ‘adequate basis in international law’ for the intervention in Iraq and thus also for the Dutch political support, the Committee is certainly not particularly harsh in its assessment of the Balkenende cabinet of the time (Balkenende I – a coalition of CDA, VVD and LPF). In numerous places in the report, it is demonstrated that Balkenende I considered that Resolution 1441 did provide that legitimation and – what is even more important – communicated that in no uncertain terms to the House of Representatives. A Parliamentary majority then agreed with the Cabinet’s conclusions. Taking an unprejudiced view, what Davids actually says is that both at the time and in hindsight, the Parliamentary majority and the Cabinet were wrong. Is that ‘vehemently critical’?
The trickiest point in the Davids report concerns the information about the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. The Committee says that the Cabinet provided the House with selective and incomplete data about the reports of the intelligence services. ‘A cardinal sin’, says the opposition now, parroting many press commentators. However, the report itself leaves room to spare not to interpret the selective information provision to Parliament as deliberately misleading. No Cabinet ever pours out all the buckets of information it has at its disposal at the feet of Parliament, there’s always a selection process. However, and this is certain, the Cabinet did have tunnel vision and did not listen enough to sources that doubted the presence of WMD. Is that a vehemently critical conclusion? Davids in his explanatory speech declined to declare that Balkenende I had withheld ‘too much’ information. He considered that a political question, which it of course is. Not all self-deception is deception of Parliament.
The first Balkenende Cabinet was the most peculiar coalition in parliamentary history. It was under attack on all fronts. In March 2003 (the month in which Iraq was invaded) it had been a ‘caretaker’ Cabinet for months. One of the governing parties, the LPF, to all intents and purposes no longer existed. The freedom that the Cabinet took was the freedom it was granted, even by the PvdA, which was eager to join the Cabinet and thus, although it did not approve of the political support of the United States, shut its eyes to everything else. So what did the public think of all this? The Davids Committee concluded that according to opinion polls, the Dutch population was not only against military intervention but also against political support for the war. That is a bit simplistic, because if you read all the small print in the report a more subtle picture does emerge. About half of those interviewed were actually in favour of politically supporting the US. That was the Netherlands in 2003, whether we like it or not.
A Cabinet crisis on this issue at this moment in time, 2010, would return us to the absurdities of that time. The unavoidable march to the ballot box would be a depressing affair if a CDA-VVD cabinet is the political alternative, as in 2003 the VVD was one of the loudest proponents of more support for the US in Iraq. Another alternative is that the CDA and PvdA, who both fell short in 2003, would have to continue to govern together – but only after another six months of negotiations. Or perhaps the PVV would join the Cabinet, a party that seems to have no interest whatsoever in the finesses of the discussion and which only wants to see the back of Balkenende. Will there be a "Hamer night", when the PvdA breaks with the current Cabinet? In that case the PvdA and the VVD are going to have to swallow a lot of hypocrisy.
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