Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 5, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI OIL REVENUE....A bunch of people have emailed pointing me to this New York Times article about how the administration overstated the amount of oil revenue we could expect from Iraq. Why haven't I commented on it?

The reason is simple: it's just a horribly written story and it made my head hurt. The hook is supposedly a Pentagon study done before the war that the administration ignored because it was too pessimistic about oil revenue projections. Unfortunately, in a 2000-word article that lurches back and forth between a confusingly large number of different sources, here's the sum total of what it says about the numbers in the report itself:

....a book-length report that described the Iraqi oil industry as so badly damaged by a decade of trade embargoes that its production capacity had fallen by more than 25 percent

....The task force concluded that although Iraq's stated production capacity was just over 3 million barrels per day, the system was only producing 2.1 million to 2.4 million barrels, panel members said.

....According to the Pentagon official who served on the task force, its projections for yearly oil revenues were $25 billion to $30 billion "in the very best case, no sabotage and little or no battle damage," and about $16 billion in the "worse than best case."

Dick Cheney's estimate in April was $20 billion, and the article admits that administration estimates before the war "were in line with the very top range of projections made by the Pentagon task force."

Now, I have no doubt at all that the administration overestimated Iraqi oil revenue, and I don't really have any doubt that they knew better. At best they were criminally overoptimistic, and at worst they simply lied about things they knew perfectly well.

Unfortunately, according to what little the NYT article tells us, the Pentagon report focused primarily on current (i.e., prewar) Iraqi oil capacity, while administration officials were talking about their hopes and dreams for postwar capacity after we had gone in and fixed everything up. And even at that, all they did was choose the high end estimates.

And frankly, I'm not even sure of that. The story is so badly written that I would literally have to pick it apart paragraph by paragraph to figure out who said what and when they said it. There's probably a good story here, but it needs someone else to tell it.

UPDATE: Here's an example. Cheney estimated 2.5-3 million barrels a day by the end of 2003. About a thousand words later in the story, we're told that the real number (as of July) is 650,000 barrels a day.

Likewise, Cheney estimated 2003 revenues of $20 billion, while much farther down in the story we learn that the reality is likely to be $2 billion this year. Those are pretty big miscalculations.

Now, there's no telling if this has anything to do with the report, which made a range of projections and seems to have been wrong too. Still, it's a fairly damning indictment of prewar planning if you see those figures right next to each other. But when you separate them by a thousand words and a dozen other estimates, it sort of loses its impact.

Kevin Drum 11:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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