A balanced budget in 2012? Yep, if war is free by 2010

At the White House, it's easy to predict a balanced budget but hard to predict the price of war.

Published February 5, 2007 4:30PM (EST)

As we noted Friday, the president's new budget proposal calls for $170 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2007 but only $145 billion in 2008, $50 billion in 2009 and nothing at all after that.

Does that mean that the president plans to scale down the U.S. war effort in 2009? The White House says not necessarily. So does that mean that the president is underestimating the amount that will be needed for the wars after 2008? The White House is implicitly admitting as much: In a budget "fact sheet" released today, it says that "the budget contains the estimated, full-year costs of the war in 2008, as well as another $50 billion in 2009," which we'll take to mean that the $50 billion for 2009 is something other than the "estimated, full-year costs" for that year.

So if the wars end up costing more than the president is now projecting, does that mean that the budget won't actually be balanced by 2012, as the president promises? Well, you might think so -- unless, of course, you happen to work in the White House press office.

From this morning's press gaggle:

Reporter: Am I wrong to look at the $145 billion fiscal '08 request for Iraq and Afghanistan and assume the president envisions a fairly substantial reduction in the deployments because of that?

Deputy press secretary Tony Fratto: I think it's more complicated than that. You're talking about for the $145 billion for the upcoming year? No, Rob [Portman] can get into greater detail on that. He did talk about how some of the funding is front-loaded, and some of the funding has been used to replace spare parts and equipment. I'd feel more comfortable if you listen to his explanation on what that means for funding in the outer years. But you shouldn't presume that that number is spelling out a policy change in the future in terms of the conduct of operations in Iraq.

Reporter: Not seeing it as a policy change, but it is so much less than the cost for fiscal '07 that it would seem to, by itself, envision a reduction in the deployment.

Fratto: We've made this point in previous years in presenting the budget -- that it is very, very difficult to project costs in future years. Now, they've put a number in the budget that gets us closer to some level of expected spending for '08. Certainly, as Director Portman said yesterday, we hope the president's plan is successful; that will, in the out years, allow us to reduce our budget obligations for Iraq. But we're not saying that the number for '08 is the final number. We don't know that right now.

Reporter: The other side of that, then, is you envision supplementals in fiscal '08?

Fratto: I'm not making that prediction. What we're saying is that it's hard to say today what the precise number will be that far out and in the following years. But I'll, again, just point you to Director Portman's briefing, and he can get into more depth into that answer.

Reporter: Is it, then, also hard to say that the budget will really be balanced in 2012?

Fratto: I think our estimates for growth both in the economy and in revenues overall are well enough to allow us to come to that conclusion, that we can target a balanced budget in 2012. And the fact that we have included a fair amount of war funding in those projections allows us to feel very, very confident in that projection for 2012.

Reporter: But you don't propose any war spending after 2009, right?

Fratto: That's right.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Budget Showdown Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room