Then, on December 12, two days before his return to Iraq, McCain wrote Bush a three-page letter proposing a new strategy: a troop surge. He argued that training Iraqi troops was of secondary importance and that the utmost concern should not be strains on the army but rather the morale-shattering prospect of a defeated U.S. military. He emphasized that while there were no guarantees, a surge offered Bush his only real chance to avoid a defeat in the Middle East. McCain sent the letter off to the White House and then—thereby ignoring the smirky advice he would later give Barack Obama ("First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy")—flew to Baghdad. A surge, of course, was not exactly a new idea for McCain: It wasn't as though he'd evaluated the situation on the ground in December 2006 and decided that more U.S. troops were precisely what Iraq needed. He'd been embracing a more-troops-equals-victory sentiment since the very start of the war—a certitude always at odds with his commander in chief's we're-on-the-right-track determination. But throughout the waning days of 2006, President Bush had begun to reappraise the mess in Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and General Casey had all opposed a surge, believing that at this point only Iraqis could chart their own destiny. Bush himself was inclined to side with his generals—"His initial feeling was, 'Let's pull back till things die down,' " according to one senior administration official. But when other big players in the White House, such as Dick Cheney and Iraq adviser Meghan O'Sullivan, encouraged Bush to view the surge as his only opportunity to achieve actual victory, it became clear which way the president would go.
McCain's December 12 letter had made the rounds, but he did not visit with the president during the latter's period of meditation—not even to be debriefed on his December trip. The White House was not looking to McCain for strategic counsel. They already had their surge architects in Fred Kagan and retired general Jack Keane—and besides, they'd always known where McCain stood, since as the senior administration official puts it, "Every time we brought him in, he was a Johnny One Note—more troops, more troops." But Bush's team did view McCain as a key political ally on the Hill. His leadership in holding a nervous Republican caucus together was deemed crucial, as was his endorsement of the number of surge brigades (five) Bush ultimately decided to send.