GQ: Prisoner of War

THE EXPLOSION CAME FROM A COUPLE of miles away, but everyone in Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer's office could hear and even feel it. It was the afternoon of August 19, 2003, less than four months after President Bush's mission accomplished speech, and Bremer's visitors—Congressmen Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), plus Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), John Sununu (R-N.H.), and the delegation's leader, John McCain—represented both parties and every region across America. All of them had supported the efforts to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein and were now here, for the first time, to witness the consequences of their fateful decision. But as an eerie quiet reclaimed the city and the meeting plodded onward, its tenor was somber. It wasn't just the mysterious explosion: The violence and lawlessness springing up all over post-Saddam Baghdad had already been giving everyone second thoughts.

  • John McCain has staked his presidential hopes on his judgment about the Iraq war- judgment that he has honed on eight separate visits to the country. Robert Draper retraces McCain's steps to find out how he managed to get certain things right, and how he could've gotten other things so terribly wrong.

"You've got to shoot the looters," said -McCain, suggesting a forceful way to bring the chaos under control. That blunt comment startled several members of the delegation. But McCain, who more than anyone else in the room had championed the war, mostly showed surprising deference to Bremer. The CPA administrator, recalls Kolbe, "was very smooth, and the people there had the view that he was on top of things." When he explained his controversial decisions to disband the Iraqi army and de-Baathify the Iraqi government—policies now widely viewed as having fueled the insurgency—McCain did not voice skepticism. Despite years of agitating for Saddam's removal, he had given little thought to what a post-invasion Iraq would look like—beyond vague expectations of "demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis," as he'd penned in a New York Times op-ed just five months earlier. "He assumed," says a close associate, "that Bremer, being on the ground as the president's superenvoy, had a plan."

As Bremer continued outlining his plan, an aide walked in and handed him a note: A flatbed truck carrying a 500-pound bomb had detonated at the U.N. compound in eastern Baghdad, and U.N. envoy to Iraq Sérgio Vieira de Mello was among the dozens feared dead. The visitors were stunned. Several of them had been scheduled to meet with de Mello shortly before the bomb had gone off, but a snafu with their flight had delayed their arrival by ninety minutes and caused them to change their schedule.

"We will not be driven off by acts of terror," McCain vowed to reporters that afternoon. But in fact, that is exactly what happened. The State Department ordered the visitors not to stay overnight in Baghdad—compelling McCain and his colleagues to conclude their first day in "mission accomplished" Iraq by flying to Kuwait for the evening.

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