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.
"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.
They returned the next day, and for most of their trip the seven American visitors saw plenty to buttress their conviction that invading Iraq had been a righteous decision. They visited a newly opened school for girls in Kirkuk and a mass grave of Saddam's victims in Al-Hillah. At a dinner in Baghdad, assorted civic leaders expressed optimism, even as they complained about Bremer's heavy-handedness. Still, it was hard to square the happy talk with the jolting tragedy that had occurred on their first day. "A lot of us were incredulous, since just twenty-four hours earlier, the U.N. representative had been killed," says Ford. "Put aside all the data—we'd seen the real live situation."
That "real live situation" did not fully register with Senator McCain until later in the trip, when the delegation visited the British military base in Basra. As it happened, the commanding officer was not available that day, so the task of receiving the Americans fell to a British lieutenant colonel, who escorted the visitors around the slummy, shuttered port city in a rickety school bus. At one point, he turned to McCain and, according to McCain's recollection, said: "Senator, as a British military officer, I'll never be on a promotions list before the U.S. Senate, I'll never have to testify before your committee, and I'll probably never see you again. So I'm going to tell you the unvarnished truth."
Iraq was on the precipice, the lieutenant colonel told the delegation. There was no electricity, no water, no prospects for employment. The public was expecting the most basic things and not getting them. If a proper mix of reconstruction aid and increased security did not arrive soon, a violent insurgency was the likely outcome.
"The guy was just chilling," remembers Graham. While Bremer and others had enumerated the infrastructure woes, the Brit's dire assessment "was an eye-opener—candor like we hadn't seen," says Kolbe.
On the flight home, McCain telephoned one of his aides in Washington. "Get me a meeting with Rumsfeld," he ordered.
Later that fall, McCain showed up at Rumsfeld's office alone. He implored the secretary to send more military forces to Iraq—advocating, as he would nearly nonstop for the ensuing three years, a troop surge. The SecDef listened impassively as the senator described what he and the others had heard. But Rumsfeld, whose vision of the military's future included a lighter and fleeter invasion force, replied with what one McCain adviser would describe as "pure rope-a-dope": Well, gee, Senator, that sure isn't what my generals are telling me. I mean, I'm happy to make a few calls, but gee…
McCain left Rumsfeld's office gnashing his teeth. "He doesn't get it," he told colleagues later. Having pushed for the war, -McCain now emerged as its leading Republican critic—the truth-teller who, unlike Bush and Rumsfeld, had seen it with his own eyes.
JOHN MCCAIN HAS been to Iraq eight times. Those trips, he maintains, have been indispensable in informing his thinking about the war. You cannot appreciate Iraq's complexity, McCain says, until you see it. Correspondingly, he tends to belittle those war critics—most noticeably presidential rival Barack Obama—whose passports are less well-worn. As his friend and surrogate Senator Lindsey Graham pointedly asserts: "It matters to go."
Of course, simply touching down in-country does not automatically confer insight: It matters not only that you go; it matters what you do once you've arrived. And throughout his political career, McCain has had plenty of practice at learning from his travels. His closest adviser, Mark Salter, ballpark-estimates that of the 200 or so national entities on the planet, McCain has visited at least 150 of them. The senator's CODELs (military-speak for "congressional delegations") involve little sleep and -meager -creature comforts. Invariably the leader of such delegations, McCain begins each morning with a gruff "March or die!" He has dragged members to Waziristan, the South Pole, and the Khyber Pass—where menacing Taliban refugees so freaked out the delegation that, as one fellow traveler remembers, "We had to leave real fast." But even at his frenetic pace, McCain is a probing inquisitor and student of history. On impulse, he'll have a novelist or an art historian summoned, or he'll demand that an American general in the dicey town of Ramadi "take us downtown—now!" And when the general declines, as was the case in 2007, McCain will duly note that Ramadi is not yet stable and will endeavor to return the following year.
McCain's visits to Iraq are of special importance because, far more than any other elected official in America—including George W. Bush—the Arizona senator was the driving force behind America's military intervention. In 1998, along with Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain had co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, which established regime change in Iraq as official U.S. policy. Three years later, he'd clearly seen September 11 as an opportunity to take out Saddam once and for all. In a speech for the Munich Security Conference—written before Bush delivered his famous January 2002 "axis of evil" speech—McCain had described an invasion of Iraq as a fait accompli: Saddam was a "terrorist," Iraq was the "next front…in our global war on terrorism," and the rest of the world was hereby on notice that "the -initiative is now ours, and we are seizing it." It was an astonishingly bellicose address, far more aggressive than even the Bush administration's public stance at that time, and eight months after delivering it, McCain became a Senate co-sponsor of the resolution authorizing military force against Iraq.
McCain got his war. And over the course of his eight visits to the country, McCain's and Iraq's ups and downs have become strikingly parallel. Though the election in November may ultimately turn on the economy or voters' doubts about Obama, John McCain and his campaign have expended considerable effort in encouraging voters to see McCain as the Warrior Who Got Things Right—the candidate who understood the realities on the ground in Iraq and had the guts to describe them as they were. And indeed, in revisiting McCain's trips to the country, a portrait emerges of an intellectually curious, incisive, energetic, and courageous politician whose leadership style would depart significantly from that of the highly unpopular George W. Bush.
But McCain's Iraq narrative also reveals less flattering traits. If it's fair to credit -McCain with sounding the alarm about Iraq's security crisis and the need for more troops, it's equally legitimate to question why he relentlessly agitated for war with so little thought given to the postwar challenges. It's also worthwhile to wonder why he paid so little heed to respected Senate colleagues like fellow Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrats Jack Reed and Joe Biden. -Hagel and Biden had visited Iraq on June 23, 2003—two months before McCain's first Iraq CODEL—and reported a "devastated" Iraqi infrastructure as well as "a precarious situation on the ground which could, if not urgently addressed, pose significant threats for American troops." Reed saw the same dangers during his initial trip, six weeks before McCain's. "I said it quite explicitly when I came back: The security situation is inextricably linked to the country's economic and social progress," he recalls. In other words, senators on both sides of the aisle had for months been saying precisely what McCain apparently heard for the first time from the British lieutenant colonel in Basra. Why hadn't he listened to them? The answer seems to be that for better or for worse, the prideful nature of the man is such that McCain trusts no one's experience as much as his own.
"His whole story in Iraq is remarkable," says his close friend Senator Lieberman. "And the trips, I believe, had a powerful effect on his judgment." If Lieberman is right, then McCain's Iraq trips provide a road map to his decision-making. And following that map offers a vivid illustration of how a President McCain might lead.
IT WAS FEBRUARY 19, 2005, and McCain and his colleagues were not traveling from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone in an unarmored sedan, as they had in 2003. Instead, they flew by helicopter over a road now deemed unsafe to travel. "If it gets any better," Lindsey Graham remarked drily, "maybe next time we'll come by tank." Eighteen months had elapsed since -McCain's first trip to Iraq. In that span of time, despite Rumsfeld's dismissals, the insurgency had stepped up its attacks against Coalition forces, and the military had begun actively discouraging elected officials from visiting Iraq. McCain was the exception—"They've never turned down a CODEL request from him," says one close associate.
Even so, as the situation in Iraq had deteriorated, McCain had spent most of 2004 preoccupied with another mission: his political future. Knowing that any '08 presidential bid would require repairing the damage to his relationship with Bushworld that had occurred during the 2000 election cycle, he devoted himself to becoming the GOP's most loyal foot soldier. He made scores of campaign appearances, and even as he publicly bemoaned the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the insufficient number of ground forces deployed in Iraq, McCain supported the Bush administration where it counted most: on the Senate floor, where he helped push through $87 billion worth of supplemental funding for the war. Those efforts did not go unnoticed. On June 22, 2004, Bush took McCain's buddy Lindsey Graham aside during a White House function and, standing on the Truman balcony, told Graham that, as the latter would remember it, "he saw John as the guy who would carry on his legacy in Iraq."
That legacy still seemed to hold at least some promise as McCain, Graham, and fellow senators Russ Feingold, Susan Collins, and Hillary Clinton flew by helicopter from Baghdad airport. Just a month earlier, Iraqis had participated in their first post-Saddam democratic election, and the delegation was expecting to see a country that had turned away from violence and toward political participation. But in reality, ramped-up postelection attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent forces had made it unsafe to see much of anything: While in Baghdad, the delegation never once left the Green Zone.
On their second day in-country, General George Casey briefed McCain and the others at Camp Victory. Casey enthused over turnout in the election, despite a boycott by Sunni voters. He also pointed to the progress in training the Iraqi forces, and General David Petraeus echoed him in the CODEL's second briefing. Though McCain admired the counterinsurgency expert, Petraeus's upbeat assessment rang false to him. If so many Iraqi soldiers were ready for battle, why were American soldiers still fighting and dying? Why were the streets of Baghdad so unsafe? "He was very tough with General Petraeus in the meeting—almost a little surprising to me," remembers Feingold. "He questioned the basis of Petraeus's numbers."
From Baghdad the CODEL choppered westward to Camp Fallujah, situated on the outskirts of the Anbar Province city where in November 2004 the Marines had engaged in a brutal battle with Shiite militias. Hundreds of Marines burst into applause when McCain entered the base, and when the commanding officer began a PowerPoint presentation on recent developments in insurgency-stricken Anbar, McCain stopped him. He said he wanted to hear about last year's battle. The colonel obliged, describing the grueling effort to secure Fallujah block by block, house by house, at a cost of seventy-one American lives. McCain, a former navy pilot whose own son is serving in Iraq, was visibly moved. This, the heroism of young men and women engaged in a just struggle, was a welcome diversion from the messiness of a foundering occupation—it was the kind of thing he had envisioned from the start.
"This may have been one of the greatest battles in military history," McCain said to the Marines.
At a press conference during the trip, McCain did not convey publicly what he now realized, which was that things had gotten far worse since his last trip. Instead, he emphasized the positive. The "prospects of success, not only here but in the entire Middle East, are intoxicating," he declared. "So we have a long, hard, difficult struggle ahead of us, but I am far more optimistic than I was before the [Iraqi] election." As it happened, McCain wasn't the only presidential aspirant on this CODEL. Clinton was now making her second trip to Iraq, and in her desire to thread the needle as a hawkish Democrat, she stepped up to the microphones and shared her "cautious optimism." The next day, she and McCain taped an interview for Meet the Press and sounded similar themes while professing their mutual admiration. During the taping, the rest of the delegation met with several British commanders, and McCain deputized Feingold, next in seniority, to lead the roundtable.
Feingold seized the moment.
"Let me ask you something," he said to a British general. "If we put a timetable down to bring troops home, what would that do?"
"Nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgency more," the general crisply replied.
Feingold began using that quote incessantly thereafter to buttress his call for a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq. But when McCain and Clinton finished their taping and rejoined the meeting, the British general did not repeat the sentiment he had voiced to Feingold. Nor did McCain, who resumed the lead of the roundtable, elicit it with an open-ended question. By now, McCain's position—more troops, not fewer—was known to all the military brass and largely viewed to be immutable. And therein lay the limitation to such CODELs, as one official who participated in briefings with McCain would point out: "You never change anybody's mind, especially when something becomes politicized. They come over there to reinforce their point of view."
Feingold was perplexed that his colleague remained committed to maintaining, and even growing, an occupying force when some respected military minds believed such a force was only stoking the insurgency.
"It's so ironic," he would say, "because John on these trips is reading military history, and the conversations on the plane are very substantive, and he frequently refers to other situations. He said to me once, 'You need to see The Battle of Algiers.' Which is about the disaster that the French went through with an insurgency. I felt like saying, 'Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!' "
AVID READER AND inquisitor though he is, when making decisions, McCain relies most heavily on his own experience—particularly Vietnam, which in his view was a winnable war that generals and politicians botched at great emotional cost to military morale. And that reliance on his own personal experience, as well as an acute sense for when to exercise political caution, can sometimes circumscribe McCain's maverick image: Though his campaign may not like to admit it, he's not really a radical think-outside-the-box type. Especially not when face-to-face with his commander in chief.
In December 2005, Iraq held another round of parliamentary elections, and both Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham had been on the ground to monitor them. President Bush had come to see that election's 70 percent turnout as a turning point and invited the senators to meet with him immediately upon their return to Washington. He also invited McCain to join them. But Biden and Graham's assessment was not what the president wanted to hear: They warned Bush that the government corruption and militia violence they'd witnessed were reminders of a country still in turmoil. Biden and Graham's edgy forecast gave McCain the opportunity to deliver the president similar "straight talk"; instead he chose to do the opposite. According to a surprised and disappointed Biden, McCain's only remarks during the meeting were pure "pabulum": lavishing praise on the Iraqi voters and on Bush for his leadership.
In fact, McCain was well aware that the December 2005 election had not marked anything approaching a turning point. And indeed, when he returned to Iraq with Russ Feingold and seven other elected officials in March 2006, he listened with obvious annoyance to General George Casey's recitation of encouraging signs in Iraq: More and more turf being turned over by the Coalition to the Iraqis. More and more political participation. It was almost precisely the same briefing Casey had given the year before—a pitch resting on the assumption that the December election really had been as meaningful as McCain himself had pretended during his own meeting with Bush.
But in Baghdad, McCain and the other CODEL members were not happy with Casey's assessment. "McCain going into the briefing hadn't had the highest level of confidence in General Casey," recalls one of the delegation's members, Utah governor Jon Huntsman. "And now it was palpable. I left the briefing angry at my country. There was no sense of mission. It was depressing."
For McCain, the fact that Shiites were forming death squads was stark proof that even the majority sect wasn't choosing ballots over bullets. But the senator had no ready solution. The troop-surge strategy he'd been advocating was intended to put down an insurgency, but civil warfare was fast replacing insurgent violence as the major problem. It struck Russ Feingold how, in the previous year's CODEL, McCain and Graham had been obsessing over the Sunni Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the supposed puppet master of insurgent violence. Now their focus was Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—and, increasingly, Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
"One of my biggest concerns was how the top people always gave fuzzy answers," says Feingold. "The phrase was 'It's the bad guys.' I would always ask, 'Who are you talking about?' I felt that nobody, be it in the CODEL or the people who were doing the briefings, were focused on: Who is the enemy? That was the problem all along."
On the flight out of Iraq, a few members of the delegation sat around a laptop and began composing a briefing paper to give to President Bush. "We had asked a State Department guy what the surrounding Gulf countries were contributing to this war, and it was practically nothing," remembers Huntsman. "We wondered, who's knocking on their doors? That, combined with the disarray in general of the theater of conflict, gave rise to this idea to formally recommend an envoy to the region—in the tradition of Warren Christopher or Jim Baker. We were shouting ideas back and forth. John wanted to wait. He didn't want to preempt anything with a surprise recommendation until he'd first done a briefing with the White House."
Upon returning, McCain and several others from the delegation again met with Bush—this time with Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld present. The president gave an opening statement, then let each person speak. The tone of the meeting was downbeat, and no one at the table, including McCain, had any new prescription for what ailed Iraq. He did not advocate an envoy to Iraq, as Huntsman had suggested. As one CODEL member would recall of McCain's disposition at the time: "He had a sense of frustration with Rumsfeld such that, with him running the Pentagon, it doesn't matter what we say at this point." For his part, Bush was "not particularly inquisitive, but not particularly defensive," remembers Feingold. "More like 'Yeah, it's tough.' That kind of thing."
"ARE WE WINNING or losing?" a member of a McCain-led CODEL asked General Casey on December 14, 2006.
Gunfire and mortar explosions were within earshot, but Casey's answer suggested to them that it was the former.
"How can you say that?" demanded McCain.
"If this is winning, what's losing?" added Senator Susan Collins.
McCain then accused Casey of having consistently painted a rosy picture of Iraq. The senator said that he possessed a whole sheaf of quotes from Casey to that effect. "We're getting closer every day to achieving our objectives," the general replied. Meaning: We're transferring more and more security control to Iraqi forces so that ours can redeploy.
"And that was his definition of winning," recalls McCain as part of an extensive e-mail exchange for this story. "But merely handing off control to Iraqi security forces, no matter the security conditions or the implications for our national security, was not my definition of 'winning' in Iraq. I observed that the American people surely did not believe that we were winning." That briefing, McCain now says, "reinforced my belief that our strategy in Iraq remained badly flawed and had to be changed immediately in order to have any real chance for success."
In December 2006, McCain was keenly aware of the cost of continuing failure in Iraq, considering that his party had just been thumped in the previous month's midterm elections. "Iraq was a big reason we lost," says Lindsey Graham. "And every Republican was looking for the exit signs." Republican senators up for reelection in 2008 were beginning to call for withdrawal. And as if the political climate hadn't been bad enough for an adamant war supporter like McCain, on December 6 the Iraq Study Group released its report advising the Bush administration to shift from a combat-centric mission to one emphasizing training and diplomacy.
But a single piece of good news from the midterm election nearly outweighed all the bad: McCain's nemesis, Rumsfeld, had at last been shown the door. His departure meant an opportunity to flood Iraq with more troops, and McCain seized it. On the day the Iraq Study Group report was released, he met first with Bush and then national-security adviser Steve Hadley. The following day, McCain publicly savaged the report's recommendations as a "recipe for defeat."
Then, on December 12, two days before his return to Iraq, McCain wrote Bush a three-page letter proposing a new strategy: a troop surge. He argued that training Iraqi troops was of secondary importance and that the utmost concern should not be strains on the army but rather the morale-shattering prospect of a defeated U.S. military. He emphasized that while there were no guarantees, a surge offered Bush his only real chance to avoid a defeat in the Middle East. McCain sent the letter off to the White House and then—thereby ignoring the smirky advice he would later give Barack Obama ("First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy")—flew to Baghdad. A surge, of course, was not exactly a new idea for McCain: It wasn't as though he'd evaluated the situation on the ground in December 2006 and decided that more U.S. troops were precisely what Iraq needed. He'd been embracing a more-troops-equals-victory sentiment since the very start of the war—a certitude always at odds with his commander in chief's we're-on-the-right-track determination. But throughout the waning days of 2006, President Bush had begun to reappraise the mess in Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and General Casey had all opposed a surge, believing that at this point only Iraqis could chart their own destiny. Bush himself was inclined to side with his generals—"His initial feeling was, 'Let's pull back till things die down,' " according to one senior administration official. But when other big players in the White House, such as Dick Cheney and Iraq adviser Meghan O'Sullivan, encouraged Bush to view the surge as his only opportunity to achieve actual victory, it became clear which way the president would go.
McCain's December 12 letter had made the rounds, but he did not visit with the president during the latter's period of meditation—not even to be debriefed on his December trip. The White House was not looking to McCain for strategic counsel. They already had their surge architects in Fred Kagan and retired general Jack Keane—and besides, they'd always known where McCain stood, since as the senior administration official puts it, "Every time we brought him in, he was a Johnny One Note—more troops, more troops." But Bush's team did view McCain as a key political ally on the Hill. His leadership in holding a nervous Republican caucus together was deemed crucial, as was his endorsement of the number of surge brigades (five) Bush ultimately decided to send.
THE SURGE was ordered by Bush on January 10, 2007. And by April 1, McCain was back on the ground, where, for the first time since his initial trip to Iraq, in August 2003, his four-man CODEL went overland to the Green Zone. McCain had often said that his acid test for progress in Iraq was when the boulevard connecting the airport to the Green Zone was no longer termed the Highway of Death. The new sheriff in town, David Petraeus, who was well aware of McCain's sentiments, was clearly making a statement. Petraeus was also eager to show the CODEL his new pet project: the now infamous Shorja market, the city's largest, which had been plagued by suicide bombings and sniper gunfire until Petraeus had barricaded it to all but pedestrian traffic. With the protection of ground troops, attack helicopters, and sharpshooters, the delegation wandered through tea stands and rug shops. McCain asked one rug merchant whether the situation had improved since the surge had begun. The merchant replied that though things seemed better, snipers still created chaos. Other vendors indicated the same.
But at the press conference later that day, McCain made no mention of such concerns. Instead, he made the decision to publicly emphasize the positive, as he had long criticized General Casey and others for doing. "What is news since the surge began is a lot of good news," the senator declared, before chiding the press for its coverage of the war. "The media, I believe, has a responsibility to report all aspects of what's taking place here in Iraq."
Throughout the rest of his trip, McCain came face-to-face with the surge's positive effects as well as its inherent limitations. He met with a Sunni tribal leader who had pledged cooperation with American forces. He saw Iraqi brigades at last making good on their pledge to defend Baghdad. But he also saw Iraqi political leaders engaged in such petty quarreling that Lindsey Graham hollered at them over dinner, "This guy and me are your two best supporters! Now get off your asses and do something!" Regardless, the only picture making the news was that of Shorja market, which McCain now realized he'd made a mistake about characterizing as a place where one "can walk around freely." (In fact, U.S. military officials in Iraq would later term the trip "the day the Green Zone went to the market.")
Blowback from Shorja immersed the delegation in gloom as they departed Iraq. McCain was furious that the media—his "base"—were now mocking him for simply stating the obvious, that the situation in Iraq was improving. Why couldn't they see what he was seeing? When the delegation's plane landed for refueling in Landstuhl, Germany, McCain visited the military hospital there. It always buoyed his spirits to be among the soldiers, whose idolatry of the celebrity naval officer was the one thing that abided throughout the slog of the Iraq war. In one ward, he came upon Pfc. Mark Robbins. A few days before McCain's visit, Robbins and his fellow soldiers had been ambushed, and Robbins saved them by killing an RPG-wielding insurgent. Another insurgent then shot Robbins in the eye. Robbins kept fighting, and he somehow made it back to the evacuation helicopter. Now he rose from his hospital bed, grabbed John McCain tightly by his hand, and whispered hoarsely: "We can win. We can win this fight."
Poorly as the trip had gone, McCain choked up on the plane thinking about the wounded soldier. A few days later, he delivered a major speech at Virginia Military Institute that included his first declaration that "I would rather lose a campaign than a war" and concluded with Robbins's exhortation, adding: "Petty Officer Mark Robbins, an American hero, believes we can still win this fight. I'll take his word for it.…" Politics was one thing, data points another. What animated John McCain above all else was valor.
BUT AS MCCAIN well knew, military heroism and more troops could not alone carry the day in Iraq. In the end, the country's future rested on political reconciliation between the various Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions. And that was not transpiring—not even as McCain's surge began to quiet the streets of Baghdad.
On July 2, 2007, the senator returned to Baghdad with the ever faithful Lindsey Graham, leaving behind him in Washington a presidential campaign in disarray. Just before boarding the plane, a severe shortfall in fund-raising had compelled him to lay off numerous campaign aides, which would soon be followed by the resignation of several top aides. The Beltway press, as one, had begun to scribble McCain's presidential obituary. Still, the Senator clung to his belief that his political fortunes would improve as Iraq's did—which is why, once in-country, the senator found a face-to-face meeting with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki so dispiriting.
For more than a year, the senator had been willing to cut the novice Shiite politician some slack. But as McCain would note, "The surge had created a window of opportunity for political progress in Iraq, and I believed that the Iraqi leadership had to move forward." There would not be a second window, McCain warned al-Maliki. Bush, McCain, and the other surge advocates had no more political capital to spend. Implicitly, McCain was saying: I have put my political career on the line. Show me some results.
Al-Maliki did the opposite. He complained about the challenges of running a unity government as a Shiite, about being stymied by the Sunni blocs. Immediately after listening to the prime minister's excuses, the CODEL met with Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, who blamed all the lack of progress on al-Maliki. Graham was reminded of his days as a lawyer handling divorces. And as for McCain, saddled with his own political woes, the last thing he wanted to hear from an Iraqi politician was "It's really hard."
It suddenly seemed that the efforts of the surge might be for naught. And so, shortly after returning from Iraq, McCain and Graham visited President Bush at the White House. According to three individuals with knowledge of the July 11 conversation, the pair advised Bush to cut all ties with al-Maliki unless he showed immediate signs of engagement. Such a move on Bush's part would be tantamount to encouraging a coup against Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister, but McCain and Graham saw the situation as a desperate one. We've got a military strategy that's working, they told the president. And it's being undercut by an Iraqi government that's dysfunctional.
Bush was sympathetic. He'd been giving al-Maliki pep talks for more than six months now, with little to show for the effort. But, he told the two senators, "Who's going to replace him?"
We don't have a good answer for that, they replied. But unless al-Maliki changes, we can't get there.
Even as McCain fretted privately to the White House, he remained publicly resolute. That same July, when several GOP senators sought to stage a vote that would cut off the surge and move toward a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, Cheney and other White House figures descended on the Hill. They implored the nervous Republicans to withhold any action until September, when David Petraeus would arrive to testify to the surge's effectiveness. They begged them to listen to John McCain, to whom the task fell of selling his colleagues on the most politically toxic foreign-policy strategy of recent times. "We were two votes away from setting timetables and pulling out of Iraq," recalls Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "And were it not for John, I think it could have turned away in our conference. I can't say he carried ten or fifteen votes or whatever. But when I'd go to dinner with some of my colleagues after those meetings, the discussion would center on, 'Wow, John said something I hadn't thought about. And he's right.' You could hear that."
The Republican coalition held. Petraeus testified in September that the surge had produced substantial gains in stability. And John McCain, now a middle-of-the-pack presidential candidate, was widely credited for his steadfastness. Vindication, if not victory, would be his.
WERE IT UP TO John McCain, this year's election would turn on Iraq. As he and his trusty right-hand men Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman had observed in Baghdad on a seventh McCain CODEL over Thanksgiving '07, the security gains that Petraeus had testified to in September were only growing. Graham and Lieberman accompanied McCain on his eighth and final trip to Iraq in March 2008, after which they boasted in a Wall Street Journal editorial that supporters of the McCain-sponsored surge could now brag of "one of the most remarkably successful military operations in American history," while naysayers like Barack Obama "face a crisis of credibility—having confidently predicted the failure of the surge, and been proven decidedly wrong." Hyperbolic though that sentiment may be, even surge opponents readily concede that it provided, if nothing else, a psychological boost to those Iraqis yearning for an unambiguous restatement of American commitment. And though the ghosts of past missteps—some of which McCain had opposed, like detainee torture and insufficient troops; others of which he had supported, like de-Baathification and rushing to war without a reconstruction plan—continued to haunt Iraq, the country was no longer a cauldron of roadside bomb explosions and militia vendettas.
McCain's March '08 foray into Iraq carried an unmistakable whiff of political triumphalism. Graham and Lieberman, now prominent McCain presidential-campaign surrogates, were the only other members of Congress on the delegation, and together the three senators surveyed a country that had previously existed only in their shared wishful thinking. Prime Minister al-Maliki, the man McCain had effectively asked Bush to remove just eight months prior, was at last showing some starch. "I've got my list, so let's get right to it," McCain had said, and al-Maliki was responsive to each matter: oil-revenue sharing, integrating the security forces, Iran, a crooked deputy minister of health. He even had a request of his own: "I want to do business with an American electricity company. We have the money, and now we need the power."
McCain, Lieberman, and Graham left the meeting visibly impressed. "On a scale of one to ten, al-Maliki used to be a zero," Graham said. "Now he's more like a four." The senators also visited Iskandariyah, a town south of Baghdad in the so-called Triangle of Death where just two weeks prior a suicide bomber had blown himself up amid a procession of Shiite pilgrims, killing at least fifty. Coalition forces had since swept in and secured the city. Without sharpshooters, attack choppers, or body armor—but with a modicum of armed protection—the three senators strode into the town's market. "Hey, John! How are you, John?" called out a few street vendors as he ambled past. Instead of aiming their rifles, the American soldiers handed pens to the schoolchildren. This, the CODEL members considered wistfully, would've made great footage. But after the Shorja market fiasco, no one would believe it.
History will one day sort out whether John McCain's prescience on troop levels redeems him for the original sin of leading the charge into a reckless war. But there is already plenty to learn from how McCain reacted to the evolving reality on the ground. It was certainly the case that the British officer's bleak prognosis back in 2003 drove McCain to rethink our postwar Iraq strategy, spurring him to agitate for Rumsfeld's removal and call constantly for the deployment of more troops. That prescience alone will be a large part of the senator's legacy on Iraq.
But McCain's Iraq CODELs also provide fodder for the view that at key moments, the intrepid McCain saw only what he wished to see or overlooked what was there to be seen; that an upsetting spectacle (such as the dithering al-Maliki) could spur him to rash and imprudent judgments; that his mind was made up on certain matters well before he went; or that, for all his firsthand experience of things going badly, he still continued to serve as a loyal footsoldier to President Bush. As one top Democratic Senate foreign-policy staffer puts it, "He may say, 'We got everything wrong,' but he continually votes the other way and then gives a nasty speech."
Overall, McCain's travels to Iraq offer a textured portrait of a man whose reputation for skepticism and patented "straight talk" is accurate but extends only so far. They reveal an independent-thinking critic who nonetheless held his tongue in moments where a dissenting voice would have been of greater service to his commander in chief. Perhaps most of all, McCain's Iraq saga evokes the complex image of a skilled, measured politician and stubborn war hero, a man deeply in the sway of combat valor who could sometimes seem to treasure the morale of the American military more than peace itself.
On that March trip, McCain indulged in one last stop in the Middle East: Tel Aviv, where he visited the country's famed Holocaust museum. Of all the jarring images in that building, one seemed to hit him the hardest. It was a photograph of Jewish concentration-camp prisoners who had been rescued by the Allied troops—only to die a few days later, their bodies too weak to react to the lavish meals prepared for them.
The irony of their sad fate—McCain could not help but appreciate it. Tyranny they could somehow abide, but in liberation they perished. It underscored how, five years into Iraq, little was guaranteed. Progress? Undeniably. Mission accomplished? Not by a long shot. Still worth fighting for? The voters would decide.