GQ: Prisoner of War

But McCain's Iraq narrative also reveals less flattering traits. If it's fair to credit -McCain with sounding the alarm about Iraq's security crisis and the need for more troops, it's equally legitimate to question why he relentlessly agitated for war with so little thought given to the postwar challenges. It's also worthwhile to wonder why he paid so little heed to respected Senate colleagues like fellow Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrats Jack Reed and Joe Biden. -Hagel and Biden had visited Iraq on June 23, 2003—two months before McCain's first Iraq CODEL—and reported a "devastated" Iraqi infrastructure as well as "a precarious situation on the ground which could, if not urgently addressed, pose significant threats for American troops." Reed saw the same dangers during his initial trip, six weeks before McCain's. "I said it quite explicitly when I came back: The security situation is inextricably linked to the country's economic and social progress," he recalls. In other words, senators on both sides of the aisle had for months been saying precisely what McCain apparently heard for the first time from the British lieutenant colonel in Basra. Why hadn't he listened to them? The answer seems to be that for better or for worse, the prideful nature of the man is such that McCain trusts no one's experience as much as his own.

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"His whole story in Iraq is remarkable," says his close friend Senator Lieberman. "And the trips, I believe, had a powerful effect on his judgment." If Lieberman is right, then McCain's Iraq trips provide a road map to his decision-making. And following that map offers a vivid illustration of how a President McCain might lead.

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IT WAS FEBRUARY 19, 2005, and McCain and his colleagues were not traveling from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone in an unarmored sedan, as they had in 2003. Instead, they flew by helicopter over a road now deemed unsafe to travel. "If it gets any better," Lindsey Graham remarked drily, "maybe next time we'll come by tank." Eighteen months had elapsed since -McCain's first trip to Iraq. In that span of time, despite Rumsfeld's dismissals, the insurgency had stepped up its attacks against Coalition forces, and the military had begun actively discouraging elected officials from visiting Iraq. McCain was the exception—"They've never turned down a CODEL request from him," says one close associate.

Even so, as the situation in Iraq had deteriorated, McCain had spent most of 2004 preoccupied with another mission: his political future. Knowing that any '08 presidential bid would require repairing the damage to his relationship with Bushworld that had occurred during the 2000 election cycle, he devoted himself to becoming the GOP's most loyal foot soldier. He made scores of campaign appearances, and even as he publicly bemoaned the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the insufficient number of ground forces deployed in Iraq, McCain supported the Bush administration where it counted most: on the Senate floor, where he helped push through $87 billion worth of supplemental funding for the war. Those efforts did not go unnoticed. On June 22, 2004, Bush took McCain's buddy Lindsey Graham aside during a White House function and, standing on the Truman balcony, told Graham that, as the latter would remember it, "he saw John as the guy who would carry on his legacy in Iraq."

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