GQ: Prisoner of War

"Nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgency more," the general crisply replied.

Feingold began using that quote incessantly thereafter to buttress his call for a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq. But when McCain and Clinton finished their taping and rejoined the meeting, the British general did not repeat the sentiment he had voiced to Feingold. Nor did McCain, who resumed the lead of the roundtable, elicit it with an open-ended question. By now, McCain's position—more troops, not fewer—was known to all the military brass and largely viewed to be immutable. And therein lay the limitation to such CODELs, as one official who participated in briefings with McCain would point out: "You never change anybody's mind, especially when something becomes politicized. They come over there to reinforce their point of view."

Feingold was perplexed that his colleague remained committed to maintaining, and even growing, an occupying force when some respected military minds believed such a force was only stoking the insurgency.

"It's so ironic," he would say, "because John on these trips is reading military history, and the conversations on the plane are very substantive, and he frequently refers to other situations. He said to me once, 'You need to see The Battle of Algiers.' Which is about the disaster that the French went through with an insurgency. I felt like saying, 'Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!' "

• • •

AVID READER AND inquisitor though he is, when making decisions, McCain relies most heavily on his own experience—particularly Vietnam, which in his view was a winnable war that generals and politicians botched at great emotional cost to military morale. And that reliance on his own personal experience, as well as an acute sense for when to exercise political caution, can sometimes circumscribe McCain's maverick image: Though his campaign may not like to admit it, he's not really a radical think-outside-the-box type. Especially not when face-to-face with his commander in chief.

In December 2005, Iraq held another round of parliamentary elections, and both Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham had been on the ground to monitor them. President Bush had come to see that election's 70 percent turnout as a turning point and invited the senators to meet with him immediately upon their return to Washington. He also invited McCain to join them. But Biden and Graham's assessment was not what the president wanted to hear: They warned Bush that the government corruption and militia violence they'd witnessed were reminders of a country still in turmoil. Biden and Graham's edgy forecast gave McCain the opportunity to deliver the president similar "straight talk"; instead he chose to do the opposite. According to a surprised and disappointed Biden, McCain's only remarks during the meeting were pure "pabulum": lavishing praise on the Iraqi voters and on Bush for his leadership.

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