GQ: Prisoner of War

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.

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