On Monday, John McCain released the outlines of his economic agenda, promising to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term by saving money from achieving victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction," McCain's memo read.
But if the goal is to reduce deficit by cutting down on foreign expenditures, the question should be raised: whose Iraq plan -- McCain's or Barack Obama's -- would do more?
Estimating costs for troop withdrawal, long-term occupations, and even current operations, is a tricky business, made more complicated by the difficulties in pinpointing exactly what each candidate is seeking to do with U.S. troops once he enters office.
But the Congressional Budget Office has put out several possible templates for an American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan that offer an approximation of the costs of Obama and McCain's policies. Should the candidates follow through with their proposals, taxpayers would be spending, perhaps, tens-of-billions (if not hundreds-of-billions) more under McCain. The Arizona Republican argues that this is a price worth paying. But it is still worthwhile noting just how much more his Iraq policy would contribute to the deficit.
If the number of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan were reduced to 30,000 by 2010, the United States would spend an estimated $570 billion between 2008 and 2017, according to an October 2007 COB report. Under this scenario, the number of personnel deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere would start at 200,000 in fiscal year 2008, "decline to approximately 100,000 personnel, on average, in 2009, and then reach 30,000 at the beginning of fiscal year 2010."
That timeline, however, could represent a quicker reduction than even Obama has pledged. While the Senator has stuck to the promise of removing one-to-two combat brigades a month from Iraq over the course of 16 months, his advisers say he is open to the idea (perhaps committed) of sending additional forces into Afghanistan. Should that be the case - and keeping in mind that Obama will leave a residual force in Iraq - an estimated troop reduction to 75,000 by 2013 seems more likely. Under that scenario, the United States would spend slightly more than $1 trillion from 2008 through 2017. For the sake of context: the cost of the wars between 2001 and 2007 has been more than $600 billion.
McCain has pledged that the war in Iraq will be won by 2013. But he has also said that he would keep troops in the country for "100 years" (or some extended length of time) provided that the level of violence were minimal. That policy would cost a pretty penny for taxpayers.
In a letter sent to Sen. Ken Conrad in September 2007, the CBO estimated that keeping approximately 55,000 military personnel in Iraq, under the assumption that they would operate at the "same pace and conduct the same types of missions as the forces currently deployed there," would have a $4 billion to $8 billion one-time cost and a price of $25 billion annually. This is an estimate of just the military operations, and would come on top of the $1-trillion-or-so cost of troop reductions as detailed by the previous CBO estimates.
Under a "non-combat" scenario, a la America's current presence in South Korea (which McCain has referenced as a template for what he would do in Iraq), costs of a long-term presence in Iraq would be approximately $8 billion at once, and $10 billion annually.
In a statement to Talking Points Memo, McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers tried to clarify the Senator's claim that the United States could reduce its deficit by winning the war.
"It's pretty straightforward," he wrote. "As we win, costs will go down with a smaller footprint over time, and those savings will go to deficit reduction. It's really the logical extension of Senator McCain's position as articulated in the 2013 speech. Achieving success in Iraq would obviously lead to reduced expenditures on the effort."
But cost estimates suggest that if reducing America's deficit is the goal, a long term military presence in Iraq is not the best mechanism for getting there.
That said, there are a variety of unknowns when it comes to estimating the costs of war policy. For example, how much money would it take for an Obama administration to send troops to Afghanistan? What would happen if, after withdrawal, troops needed to be brought back into Iraq (would they have to fight to regain bases)? How much will medical costs end up being for returning soldiers? What are the costs of a disorderly withdrawal? And how long, exactly, will McCain's vision of a long-term presence in the region last?
"Look at the initial estimates offered by Mitch Daniels [Director of the White House Budget] for the war in 2002," remarked Brian Katulis, a foreign policy specialist for the Center for American Progress. "He was saying the war would cost somewhere between $50 billion and $60 billion. How accurate did that turn out?"
But there are certain cost predictions that analysts can make with greater certainty. One is that transporting troops, whether to a different country or back home, is generally the same (roughly $4 billion to $5 billion). The other is that drawing down troops is more cost effective then keeping them in Iraq.
"The pace of the drawdown matters a lot," said one analyst who has studied the issue extensively. "The faster it is the more you save. The less combat operations costs you will have, the few combat payments you will have to make, the less expensive it will be to operate and repair equipment. You will consolidate bases. And the transportation costs will be the same.... It is a linear cost reduction. As you take people out you save money."