Henry, I think, has the best take I’ve read on Jon Chait’s netroots article. Chait’s take is actually pretty good in many respects, but is also marred by his unwillingness to believe that people might disagree with the positions of Democratic centrists for substantive rather than political reasons. In particular, Chait’s argument to a remarkable extent ignores the Iraq War, which as Henry correctly notes was “the most egregious example of the echo chamber that I’ve seen in recent history.” Atrios links to a Chait op-ed from 2003 that exemplifies the intellectual errors that Chait seems to attribute to the “netroots.” First, we have some strawman construction amid grossly premature triumphalism:
In the lead-up to the war against Iraq, liberal doves all made pretty much the same point, with some variation: However successful the conflict itself might be, the long-term diplomatic costs of alienating much of the world would outweigh any benefits. This prediction, while questionable, at least had the benefit of playing out over such an extended period of time that it could not be conclusively disproved until its adherents were all long dead. Alas, after the campaign hit a snag, many doves were unable to resist the temptation to crow over the supposed overconfidence of the war plan — and as a result looked silly a few days later when Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed, to the apparent delight of most Iraqis.
This is quite remarkable. To state the obvious, “the diplomatic costs” are not the only potential costs here, and most critics didn’t doubt our ability to quickly defeat Iraq’s twelfth-rate military and depose Hussein. Rather, the most obvious potential cost was the cost of installing an Islamist quasi-state riven by civil war in Iraq, and the wholly predictable quagmire for American troops and resources (and the net negative for national security) that would ensue. To believe that a more liberal and similarly stable state would result from the invasion requires the belief that the Bush administration was capable of creating such a state ex nihilo from a country riven by sectarian conflict and with little in the way of civic institutions. Evidently, anybody who would trust the Bush administration to accomplish this would trust Lt. Frank Drebin to build a nuclear reactor. Anyway, it’s not just that Chait made an egregious misjudgment, but he wasn’t even asking the right questions, or engaging with anything like the strongest arguments of the critics. “Disarming” Hussein would not serve American security interests if anarchy resulted from the invasion, and so even a defense of the war that didn’t hinge on daydream believing about Iraqi democracy couldn’t avoid questions about Iraqi reconstruction.
Atrios has already highlighted his claim that the lack of evidence of WMDs prior to the war could not be considered a lack of evidence of WMDs. (As I’ve pointed out before, Chait also uses the grossly overinclusive “WMD” category to avoid explaining how, exactly, Hussein possessing some mustard gas would posed a significant threat to American national security.) We’ll return to this shortly. And finally, we have him ascribing motives to opponents of the war straight out of the Republican playbook:
Perhaps the most disheartening development of the war — at home, anyway — is the number of liberals who have allowed Bush-hatred to take the place of thinking. Speaking with otherwise perceptive people, I have seen the same intellectual tics come up time and time again: If Bush is for it, I’m against it. If Bush says it, it must be a lie.
Again, it’s not that people disagreed with Chait on the merits, it’s that they’re blinded by irrational Bush-hatred. He also fails to grapple with the most obvious problem with his assertion: the fact that most American liberal critics of the Iraq War supported the war in Afghanistan, which suggests that the mere fact that Bush supported something was not dispositive. Moreover, the implicit argument here that the competence and honesty of the Bush administration are somehow out of bounds when evaluating a preventative war whose desirability depended on either 1)claims about Iraqi weapons capacity that were not borne out in pre-war inspections or 2)assertions that the Bush administration could make Iraq a pro-American democratic model in the middle east is foolish. To once again return to d-squared:
Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make innacurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to “shade” downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a “starting point”. By the way, I would just love to get hold of a few of the quantitative numbers from documents prepared to support the war and give them a quick run through Benford’s Law.
Application to Iraq. This was how I decided that it was worth staking a bit of credibility on the strong claim that absolutely no material WMD capacity would be found, rather than “some” or “some but not enough to justify a war” or even “some derisory but not immaterial capacity, like a few mobile biological weapons labs”. My reasoning was that Powell, Bush, Straw, etc, were clearly making false claims and therefore ought to be discounted completely, and that there were actually very few people who knew a bit about Iraq but were not fatally compromised in this manner who were making the WMD claim. Meanwhile, there were people like Scott Ritter and Andrew Wilkie who, whatever other faults they might or might not have had, did not appear to have told any provable lies on this subject and were therefore not compromised.
The raspberry road that led to Abu Ghraib was paved with bland assumptions that people who had repeatedly proved their untrustworthiness, could be trusted. There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world. Audit is meant to protect us from this, which is why audit is so important.
I’m not convinced about the usefulness of generalizing about “the netroots” in general, but certainly any argument that fails to account for the Iraq War and the fact that so many idiosyncratic, independent liberal pundits fell for it because of the same failings they attribute to the “netroots” is inevitably going to have a huge hole in its center.