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."