January 7, 2008 – About six months before the United States invaded Iraq, then-White House economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey famously estimated that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. The prediction ended up being way too low: As of Sept. 30, congressional analysts recently estimated, the war had cost $449 billion, and the number is still rising.
The episode helped get Lindsey ousted from a White House intent on imposing message discipline and furious about an estimate that, even while low, was the first to hint at the larger budgetary consequences of the invasion.
In the years since, Lindsey has studiously avoided comment about the circumstances surrounding that estimate.
But in a book being published this week — “What a President Should Know . . . But Most Learn Too Late” — Lindsey offers for the first time what he terms “the true story” behind his estimate, including what he sees as a mistaken White House strategy to play down the costs of war to maintain public support for an invasion.
Putting “out only a best-case scenario without preparing the public for some worse eventuality was the wrong strategy to follow,” Lindsey writes. “It may have helped at the margin in the very short run by making the war sound attractive.
“But this came at the expense of undermining the president’s political capital in the long run.”
As Lindsey tells it, the estimate grew out of a conversation in his office with Wall Street Journal reporter Bob Davis in September 2002 about the economic consequences of the “war on terror.” During the conversation, Lindsey projected the “upper bound” of spending on a then-hypothetical Iraq war at 1 to 2 percent of gross domestic product, or between $100 billion and $200 billion.
In his book, Lindsey suggests that he came up with that range by looking at some historical comparisons and contemporary rules of thumb regarding force commitments. Based on those calculations, he says, the “most plausible number” for the cost of the war was going to be between 0.5 and 1 percent of GDP for each year of the conflict. A year at the high end of that estimate and up to two years of follow-up at a lower end produce Lindsey’s estimate of between 1 and 2 percent of GDP. (Lindsey says the war is actually running at about 0.7 percent of GDP annually.)
Where he went wrong, of course, is his estimate of how long the war would last. “When I look back, did I do an honest job in coming up with this estimate? I think the answer is yes,” Lindsey said in an interview last week. “You have to make assumptions at a certain point, and that assumption turned out to be wrong.”
Lindsey writes that, even in hindsight, he does not believe that his basic message to Davis was inappropriate or contrary to administration thinking: Even if the United States went to war in Iraq, it would not derail the economy. But it was simply the fact of the interview that appears to have angered his (unnamed) White House colleagues.
At the time, Lindsey writes, “the entire country was talking about everything related to the Iraq War except the White House. If there was a break in message discipline, it was not that the actual words of the message were wrong: rather, it was that there was a message at all. At that time, message discipline on Iraq was the functional equivalent of radio silence.”
Lindsey’s comments came in a book written with the help of former White House colleague Marc Sumerlin, a partner with him in a consulting group that offers advice on economic trends to big corporations. The book provides an “insider’s view” on how to succeed in the White House, in the form of memos to the next president on how to organize his or her administration, consider big questions such as going to war and handle complex issues.
Among Lindsey’s more provocative recommendations is that the next president take office planning to serve only one term, to ensure a focus “solely on the things that motivated you to run in the first place.” Lindsey, who is advising GOP presidential hopeful Fred D. Thompson, came to this conclusion after appraising the problematic second terms of many recent presidents, including the one he served most recently.
Lindsey said in the interview that he believes the first term went reasonably well for President Bush, especially on domestic policy, because he had a clear agenda — tax cuts, education reform, rebuilding the military, a prescription drug plan and Social Security — and achieved much of it. “The first term pretty much ran according to book,” he said. “The second term–they didn’t do that. If you don’t have a script, you don’t have something to stick to.”