GQ: Prisoner of War

That legacy still seemed to hold at least some promise as McCain, Graham, and fellow senators Russ Feingold, Susan Collins, and Hillary Clinton flew by helicopter from Baghdad airport. Just a month earlier, Iraqis had participated in their first post-Saddam democratic election, and the delegation was expecting to see a country that had turned away from violence and toward political participation. But in reality, ramped-up postelection attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent forces had made it unsafe to see much of anything: While in Baghdad, the delegation never once left the Green Zone.

On their second day in-country, General George Casey briefed McCain and the others at Camp Victory. Casey enthused over turnout in the election, despite a boycott by Sunni voters. He also pointed to the progress in training the Iraqi forces, and General David Petraeus echoed him in the CODEL's second briefing. Though McCain admired the counterinsurgency expert, Petraeus's upbeat assessment rang false to him. If so many Iraqi soldiers were ready for battle, why were American soldiers still fighting and dying? Why were the streets of Baghdad so unsafe? "He was very tough with General Petraeus in the meeting—almost a little surprising to me," remembers Feingold. "He questioned the basis of Petraeus's numbers."

From Baghdad the CODEL choppered westward to Camp Fallujah, situated on the outskirts of the Anbar Province city where in November 2004 the Marines had engaged in a brutal battle with Shiite militias. Hundreds of Marines burst into applause when McCain entered the base, and when the commanding officer began a PowerPoint presentation on recent developments in insurgency-stricken Anbar, McCain stopped him. He said he wanted to hear about last year's battle. The colonel obliged, describing the grueling effort to secure Fallujah block by block, house by house, at a cost of seventy-one American lives. McCain, a former navy pilot whose own son is serving in Iraq, was visibly moved. This, the heroism of young men and women engaged in a just struggle, was a welcome diversion from the messiness of a foundering occupation—it was the kind of thing he had envisioned from the start.

"This may have been one of the greatest battles in military history," McCain said to the Marines.

At a press conference during the trip, McCain did not convey publicly what he now realized, which was that things had gotten far worse since his last trip. Instead, he emphasized the positive. The "prospects of success, not only here but in the entire Middle East, are intoxicating," he declared. "So we have a long, hard, difficult struggle ahead of us, but I am far more optimistic than I was before the [Iraqi] election." As it happened, McCain wasn't the only presidential aspirant on this CODEL. Clinton was now making her second trip to Iraq, and in her desire to thread the needle as a hawkish Democrat, she stepped up to the microphones and shared her "cautious optimism." The next day, she and McCain taped an interview for Meet the Press and sounded similar themes while professing their mutual admiration. During the taping, the rest of the delegation met with several British commanders, and McCain deputized Feingold, next in seniority, to lead the roundtable.

Feingold seized the moment.

"Let me ask you something," he said to a British general. "If we put a timetable down to bring troops home, what would that do?"

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