The Spectacle Blog

Did Mitch Daniels Fudge the Iraq War Budget?

By on 3.2.10 | 6:42PM

George Packer made a serious accusation against Indiana governor Mitch Daniels yesterday, which has been echoed by other commentators. Reacting to Ross Douthat's Times article praising Daniels and portraying him as potentially the best Republican candidate for 2012, Packer wrote

Daniels was Bush's head of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2003.... He was responsible for forecasting the budget in the event of a war with Iraq. His number came in at fifty to sixty billion dollars. Compared to what some experts were forecasting, it was an astonishingly low figure. But even Daniels's projection was too much for the Bush White House, which was intent on keeping unpleasant scenarios about the war out of the public eye.... Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's top economic adviser, had said the war could cost as much as two hundred billion, and Daniels had dismissed the figure as "very, very high." As for the cost of rebuilding Iraq, by April of 2003-with the war already under way-O.M.B. had asked Congress for the paltry sum of 2.5 billion. By the end of last year, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had cost over a trillion dollars.

Packer's claim here, that Daniels's 2003 forecast of Iraq war costs was short by 900-plus billion dollars, is inaccurate. The forecast that Packer is referring to, the one about which Lindsey and Daniels disagreed, is the forecast for Iraq war appropriations supplemental to the 2003 budget. The "fifty to sixty billion dollars" that Daniels projected were only supposed to cover the costs of the war for the next six months -- through the end of fiscal year 2003. 

And Daniels's projections turned out to be too high, not too low. The chart below can be found on Page 5 of the 2007 CBO report on the costs from the war on terrorism: 

As you can see, military operations in Iraq totaled $46 billion in 2003, far less than the $63 billion Daniels budgeted.

Packer uses the false claim regarding the 2003 supplemental Iraq appropriation in his denunciation of Daniels. Emphasis mine: 

What worries me is that Daniels’s projection was the budgetary equivalent of the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s failure to commit enough troops for the occupation. “Very, very high” reminds me of what Paul Wolfowitz said in response to General Eric Shinseki’s estimate that stabilizing Iraq would take several hundred thousand troops: he dismissed it as “wildly off the mark.” Wolfowitz and Daniels weren’t just mistaken. They were guaranteeing that the Administration wouldn’t be ready if things went wrong. They were contributing directly to the disaster that followed the fall of Saddam. And they were acting out of ideological conviction or bureaucratic loyalty rather than cold analytical judgment. In short, when the stakes were as high as possible, Daniels showed very little independence or common sense, the qualities that Douthat credits him with.

That's a damning accusation to make without checking that the main premise is correct. Unless Packer is withholding other information that shows that Daniels intentionally downplayed the expected costs of the war, his diatribe seems awfully close to pure slander.

In the remainder of that post, Packer makes another, separate charge against Daniels -- that he "nickeled and dimed" the Coalition Provisional Authority tasked with stabilizing Iraq. This is also a very serious claim, but given the level of caution that Packer showed in his first accusation, I'm tempted to disregard it.

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