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."