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.