This comment by GWB, as quoted by Woodward, is attracting some criticism:
Actually, I agree with Mr. Bush on this one. Asking what the long-term consequences of one’s actions figure to be is a sensible activity, with due deference to the difficulty of prediction. But asking how “history” (i.e., future historiographers) will treat it is both fairly futile — since it involves two nested predictions, one about the actual future and other other about the future of historiography — and beside the point.
What “history” almost surely won’t do is ask whether, on the information available to the decision-maker, the decision made was prudent or not. Yet that is the only sensible standard for a decision-maker to apply to himself: to act, in the moment, with the available information, as prudently as his or her human limitations, and the limitations of the insitutional surround, will allow.
If GWB loses less sleep than his predecessors about “the judgment of history,” good for him.
Update Matt Yglesias pulls off a neat trick: commenting on Bush’s comment before Bush even made it. (And he brings up the Chou En-lai quote I meant to use but didn’t.) Matt then has some nice reflections on the relationship between unpredictability and the validity of consequentialist reasoning.
It’s surely true that the less predictable the results are, the greater the weight that should be given to the principles pursued and the means employed. But consequences must count for something. I just don’t want to confound a concern for consequences with obsessing about “the verdict of history.” The problem with the verdict of history is that the judge can often be bullied or bought.