GQ: Prisoner of War

In fact, McCain was well aware that the December 2005 election had not marked anything approaching a turning point. And indeed, when he returned to Iraq with Russ Feingold and seven other elected officials in March 2006, he listened with obvious annoyance to General George Casey's recitation of encouraging signs in Iraq: More and more turf being turned over by the Coalition to the Iraqis. More and more political participation. It was almost precisely the same briefing Casey had given the year before—a pitch resting on the assumption that the December election really had been as meaningful as McCain himself had pretended during his own meeting with Bush.

But in Baghdad, McCain and the other CODEL members were not happy with Casey's assessment. "McCain going into the briefing hadn't had the highest level of confidence in General Casey," recalls one of the delegation's members, Utah governor Jon Huntsman. "And now it was palpable. I left the briefing angry at my country. There was no sense of mission. It was depressing."

For McCain, the fact that Shiites were forming death squads was stark proof that even the majority sect wasn't choosing ballots over bullets. But the senator had no ready solution. The troop-surge strategy he'd been advocating was intended to put down an insurgency, but civil warfare was fast replacing insurgent violence as the major problem. It struck Russ Feingold how, in the previous year's CODEL, McCain and Graham had been obsessing over the Sunni Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the supposed puppet master of insurgent violence. Now their focus was Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—and, increasingly, Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

"One of my biggest concerns was how the top people always gave fuzzy answers," says Feingold. "The phrase was 'It's the bad guys.' I would always ask, 'Who are you talking about?' I felt that nobody, be it in the CODEL or the people who were doing the briefings, were focused on: Who is the enemy? That was the problem all along."

On the flight out of Iraq, a few members of the delegation sat around a laptop and began composing a briefing paper to give to President Bush. "We had asked a State Department guy what the surrounding Gulf countries were contributing to this war, and it was practically nothing," remembers Huntsman. "We wondered, who's knocking on their doors? That, combined with the disarray in general of the theater of conflict, gave rise to this idea to formally recommend an envoy to the region—in the tradition of Warren Christopher or Jim Baker. We were shouting ideas back and forth. John wanted to wait. He didn't want to preempt anything with a surprise recommendation until he'd first done a briefing with the White House."

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