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The hazards of abandoning reason

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

NOTE: Much of this post concerns Jonathan Chait’s terrible judgment on the Iraq War. I understand the impulse to say: that was a long time ago, let’s move on already, what else ya got? But the Iraq War was the most important foreign policy issue of the last couple of decades, which means reputations deserve to be made or destroyed by it. You don’t get to screw up on something of that magnitude and then get what Charles Pierce called (in a slightly different context) a Great Mulligan. It should haunt you for as long as you are an analyst. Whiff on the biggest issue of a generation and expect to hear about it year after year. So yes, Iraq again. For those who got it wrong, always and forever Iraq.

Sam Pritchard has a great essay responding to Chait’s piece on political correctness. (Inclusiveness is a long-standing concern for Chait.) He addresses Chait’s wildly overheated rhetoric, the contradiction between demanding some ideas be logically engaged while summarily dismissing others, and the limits of civil discourse in changing people’s minds. He also writes about the ability of falsehood to persist in the popular imagination, noting (among other things) that “42% of Americans still believe we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

This bit of misinformation jumped out at me because it points back to Chait’s own enthusiastic support of the Iraq War. He was one of the leading voices on the left calling for the attack. He now invokes “the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.” How was he using reason back in 2002? Well for one, he wrote “we must eliminate Iraq’s nonconventional arsenal by any means at our disposal, including, if all else fails, war.” Which means everyone knew Iraq had WMDs right?

Actually, no. Scott Ritter didn’t think so. Mohamed El Baradei didn’t think so. Why were these experts not legitimate in his eyes? They actually had experience on the ground. For someone as concerned as Chait now is with opposing views being defined as illegitimate, he didn’t even bother to acknowledge (much less rebut) their arguments – which, just to be clear, were correct.

Chait could only muster withering contempt for the idea inspections and later write “it was very hard to know at the time.” It was only hard to know if one was heavily emotionally invested in supporting the Bush administration. If one took a more rational approach it was pretty easy. But faith in Iraq’s WMD program assumed, to coin a phrase, a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people.

There was excellent reason to believe Iraq likely didn’t have WMDs. Even if it did, did that justify launching a war? Again, looking at it rationally: of course not – and that too was easy to know at the time. (Keep in mind the WMD issue is just one of Chait’s intuition-based positions on Iraq. For brevity’s sake I won’t touch the claim that “the liberal concern for humanitarianism should not stand in the way” of war, wholesale absurdities like this, etc.)

Pushing the Bush administration’s line was not an intellectual exercise. Pierce (again) wrote that it “relied on journalistic convention and the soft agreements between gentlemen to peddle their poison,” and concludes: “it is still the most important thing to remember that there were people who got…it…right.” These things were knowable, provided one wanted to know them.

During the run-up to war America’s political and media elite were overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, pro-war (just ask Phil Donahue). I understand the worry one might have had about being fired or ostracized. I understand the psychic incentive to go along, to look extra hard for reasons to support the case for war, and conversely to give extra scrutiny to the case against it.

I know how tempting it was to blandly say “I don’t think you can argue that a regime change in Iraq won’t demonstrably and almost immediately improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people,” even though there wasn’t a scrap of evidence – beyond the wild imaginings of neocon warmongers and Iraqi exiles eyeing power – to support it. Not that I agree with it or excuse it, but I can certainly understand it. It’s entirely possible I’d have done the same thing.

But boy howdy it takes a special kind of cluelessness to happily surf a wave of propaganda that helps launch a war of aggression, and then ever again for the rest of your life talk about how you are a champion of Enlightenment thinking. Chait’s actual sins against rational discourse dwarf the ones he imagines in his opponents.

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