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?"