The New Yorker‘s George Packer is arguing that I was wrong to defend Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels against Packer’s accusation that Daniels, as Bush’s OMB director, intentionally lowballed the cost of the Iraq War. It might seem like a minor point, but it is important because of what it says about Daniels’s trustworthiness.
He makes two arguments against my post, but one is more illustrative of what I think is the problem and what prompted me to suggest that his post verged on slander.
[Ross] Douthat recognizes the truth, but he thinks Daniels should be given a pass, both for his pre-war projection and for his post-invasion resistance to releasing money quickly for Iraq’s desperately needed reconstruction. After all, he was only the numbers guy. The war plan came from the Pentagon. The policy came from the President. But if President Obama told his budget director, Peter Orszag, that he wanted a forecast for a health-care plan that would cover all Americans, and that the plan was based on a model from the Health and Human Services Department that projected insurance companies slashing premiums by ninety per cent across the board, and if Orszag and his spokesman had subsequently told the press that covering all Americans would cost fifty billion dollars, rather than over a trillion dollars as some experts were predicting, and if Orszag had also said that Lawrence Summers’s much larger forecast should be disregarded, then fair-minded people like Ross Douthat would have a right to think that Orszag wasn’t a very conscientious budget director, and that he might not make a very good President.
The difference between this hypothetical and what Packer’s accusation against Daniels is that Packer claimed in his post that Daniels intentionally fudged the budget to make Bush’s invasion more palatable, and that he did so knowing that the funds allocated to the troops would not be enough for the war. If true, that would mean that Daniels had the blood of thousands of US soldiers and Iraqi citizens on his hands, because obviously, in retrospect, the US forces didn’t have the resources necessary to prevent Iraq turning into a quagmire.
The evidence would have to be very convincing to justify making such a serious charge — you have to give Daniels the benefit of the doubt before condemning him. And there just isn’t evidence that Daniels abetted the administration in plot to disguise the war’s costs. Instead, he projected the costs for a specific, plausible war scenario, and did so accurately. In looking back it’s easy to see that the administration should have also provided a separate, much more generous range of costs for the duration of the war. But the rhetoric the administration uses in wartime is not the responsibility of the budget chief.
Packer’s bases his accusation on an interpretation of Daniels’s cost projection that includes a comparison that is not quite apples-to-apples:
In other words, O.M.B. was basing its forecast on a model that had the war fought and won-including “relief and reconstruction” and large-scale troop withdrawals-within six months. That model happened to coincide with the end of the fiscal year, but it’s false to suggest, as Lawler does, that the forecast was driven by the fiscal year, and would have miraculously tracked with the Congressional Budget Office’s projections over the next four years if only O.M.B. had extended its forecast beyond FY 2003.
Packer is saying here that Daniels’s forecast should have been comparable to contemporaneous estimates of the cost of the entire war and its long-term fallout. One fact to bear in mind, though, is that the forecast in question was for the emergency supplemental appropriation to pay for the Iraq invasion. Emergency supplemental appropriations are bills that provide spending in the case of an emergency that wasn’t covered in the regular budget. It is the nature of a supplemental appropriation that the funds are only supposed to cover the emergency up until the end of the fiscal year, at which point the costs would be part of the next year’s budget. Of course, this is how the Bush administration funded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars throughout their duration, which practice is rightly a subject of debate (Obama has pledged to end it) — but that’s a separate issue relating to Bush’s decisions. And it is also true that the proposed appropriations were for the execution of a war that would be finished before the end of the fiscal year — not an unreasonable assumption for a budget director, if it’s made clear that that’s not a worst-case scenario forecast. The question is whether it was deceptive of Daniels to provide an accurate forecast of the costs that would be incurred in the period covered by the supplemental appropriations.
The answer is that it clearly wasn’t. Take this New York Times lede. It’s clear that the reality of Daniels’s estimates was effectively related to the public (who, by the way, tend not even to know that there’s such a thing as the OMB, much less factor its projections into their view of proposed wars):
President Bush will ask Congress for $74.7 billion to pay for the war in Iraq, a senior administration official said tonight, but the money covers anticipated expenses for only the next six months. It does not cover any war expenses after the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept. 30, or the long-term costs of reconstruction.
Packer can argue that the Bush administration was irresponsible with its forecasts of the costs of the war in total, and that they should have seen the descent into chaos beforehand. And he can argue, if he wants, that Daniels should have been more proactive in warning of the potential costs of a war that wasn’t quickly resolved, and maybe even provided an extension of his projection into following budgetary periods, allowing for a range of differing military results. But to assert that Daniels intentionally provided a deceptively narrow projection and insinuate that he did so knowing it would lead to disaster, is, I think, way out of bounds.