Um, “Victory” in Iraq Won’t Balance the Budget

John McCain’s plan to balance the budget by 2013 may have just taken the prize for Most Ridicule Sustained in a 24-Hour Period. (Before that, McCain’s and Clinton’s gas-tax holiday proposals held the title .) The biggest gripe: It’s hard to see how McCain would sustain the Bush tax cuts, which the CBO estimates would create a $443 billion deficit by 2013, and still find room for his estimated $300 billion in additional tax proposals while also eliminating the deficit.

The McCain campaign promises to reach the Big Zero through a combination of economic growth, controlled spending, and bipartisan budget efforts. But they don’t provide any numbers to show how much the economy must grow, how much spending they’d rein in, or what areas they’d trim. (Read his whole plan here .) Then there’s this:

The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.

This statement is … problematic. For one thing, reducing deficit spending doesn’t free up money. It’s just means we don’t create money. So while it may reduce the deficit, it does nothing to reduce the overall debt and balance the budget.

But there’s another problem: Pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan will cost money before it saves money. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that reducing troops levels to 75,000 by 2013 would cost an additional $205 billion (that is, in addition to current spending levels) between 2008 and 2013. Only after that would the United States start saving—or, rather, not spending cash we don’t have. A faster drawdown to 30,000 troops by 2010 would reduce the deficit over the same period, but only by $70 billion. (Read the CBO estimate here ; details here .) The CBO will have a new estimate in September.

So even if McCain was able to achieve his definition of victory in Iraq as laid out in his “Four Year Vision” speech in May—”The United States maintains a military presence there, but a much smaller one, and it does not play a direct combat role”—it wouldn’t likely save money until later. And it would certainly play little to no role in balancing the budget by 2013.