Upon returning, McCain and several others from the delegation again met with Bush—this time with Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld present. The president gave an opening statement, then let each person speak. The tone of the meeting was downbeat, and no one at the table, including McCain, had any new prescription for what ailed Iraq. He did not advocate an envoy to Iraq, as Huntsman had suggested. As one CODEL member would recall of McCain's disposition at the time: "He had a sense of frustration with Rumsfeld such that, with him running the Pentagon, it doesn't matter what we say at this point." For his part, Bush was "not particularly inquisitive, but not particularly defensive," remembers Feingold. "More like 'Yeah, it's tough.' That kind of thing."
"ARE WE WINNING or losing?" a member of a McCain-led CODEL asked General Casey on December 14, 2006.
Gunfire and mortar explosions were within earshot, but Casey's answer suggested to them that it was the former.
"How can you say that?" demanded McCain.
"If this is winning, what's losing?" added Senator Susan Collins.
McCain then accused Casey of having consistently painted a rosy picture of Iraq. The senator said that he possessed a whole sheaf of quotes from Casey to that effect. "We're getting closer every day to achieving our objectives," the general replied. Meaning: We're transferring more and more security control to Iraqi forces so that ours can redeploy.
"And that was his definition of winning," recalls McCain as part of an extensive e-mail exchange for this story. "But merely handing off control to Iraqi security forces, no matter the security conditions or the implications for our national security, was not my definition of 'winning' in Iraq. I observed that the American people surely did not believe that we were winning." That briefing, McCain now says, "reinforced my belief that our strategy in Iraq remained badly flawed and had to be changed immediately in order to have any real chance for success."
In December 2006, McCain was keenly aware of the cost of continuing failure in Iraq, considering that his party had just been thumped in the previous month's midterm elections. "Iraq was a big reason we lost," says Lindsey Graham. "And every Republican was looking for the exit signs." Republican senators up for reelection in 2008 were beginning to call for withdrawal. And as if the political climate hadn't been bad enough for an adamant war supporter like McCain, on December 6 the Iraq Study Group released its report advising the Bush administration to shift from a combat-centric mission to one emphasizing training and diplomacy.
But a single piece of good news from the midterm election nearly outweighed all the bad: McCain's nemesis, Rumsfeld, had at last been shown the door. His departure meant an opportunity to flood Iraq with more troops, and McCain seized it. On the day the Iraq Study Group report was released, he met first with Bush and then national-security adviser Steve Hadley. The following day, McCain publicly savaged the report's recommendations as a "recipe for defeat."