GQ: Prisoner of War

Robert Draper retraces John McCain's stances on the Iraq war.

ByABC News
September 18, 2008, 2:32 PM

— -- THE EXPLOSION CAME FROM A COUPLE of miles away, but everyone in Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer's office could hear and even feel it. It was the afternoon of August 19, 2003, less than four months after President Bush's mission accomplished speech, and Bremer's visitors—Congressmen Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), plus Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), John Sununu (R-N.H.), and the delegation's leader, John McCain—represented both parties and every region across America. All of them had supported the efforts to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein and were now here, for the first time, to witness the consequences of their fateful decision. But as an eerie quiet reclaimed the city and the meeting plodded onward, its tenor was somber. It wasn't just the mysterious explosion: The violence and lawlessness springing up all over post-Saddam Baghdad had already been giving everyone second thoughts.

"You've got to shoot the looters," said -McCain, suggesting a forceful way to bring the chaos under control. That blunt comment startled several members of the delegation. But McCain, who more than anyone else in the room had championed the war, mostly showed surprising deference to Bremer. The CPA administrator, recalls Kolbe, "was very smooth, and the people there had the view that he was on top of things." When he explained his controversial decisions to disband the Iraqi army and de-Baathify the Iraqi government—policies now widely viewed as having fueled the insurgency—McCain did not voice skepticism. Despite years of agitating for Saddam's removal, he had given little thought to what a post-invasion Iraq would look like—beyond vague expectations of "demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis," as he'd penned in a New York Times op-ed just five months earlier. "He assumed," says a close associate, "that Bremer, being on the ground as the president's superenvoy, had a plan."

As Bremer continued outlining his plan, an aide walked in and handed him a note: A flatbed truck carrying a 500-pound bomb had detonated at the U.N. compound in eastern Baghdad, and U.N. envoy to Iraq Sérgio Vieira de Mello was among the dozens feared dead. The visitors were stunned. Several of them had been scheduled to meet with de Mello shortly before the bomb had gone off, but a snafu with their flight had delayed their arrival by ninety minutes and caused them to change their schedule.

"We will not be driven off by acts of terror," McCain vowed to reporters that afternoon. But in fact, that is exactly what happened. The State Department ordered the visitors not to stay overnight in Baghdad—compelling McCain and his colleagues to conclude their first day in "mission accomplished" Iraq by flying to Kuwait for the evening.

They returned the next day, and for most of their trip the seven American visitors saw plenty to buttress their conviction that invading Iraq had been a righteous decision. They visited a newly opened school for girls in Kirkuk and a mass grave of Saddam's victims in Al-Hillah. At a dinner in Baghdad, assorted civic leaders expressed optimism, even as they complained about Bremer's heavy-handedness. Still, it was hard to square the happy talk with the jolting tragedy that had occurred on their first day. "A lot of us were incredulous, since just twenty-four hours earlier, the U.N. representative had been killed," says Ford. "Put aside all the data—we'd seen the real live situation."

That "real live situation" did not fully register with Senator McCain until later in the trip, when the delegation visited the British military base in Basra. As it happened, the commanding officer was not available that day, so the task of receiving the Americans fell to a British lieutenant colonel, who escorted the visitors around the slummy, shuttered port city in a rickety school bus. At one point, he turned to McCain and, according to McCain's recollection, said: "Senator, as a British military officer, I'll never be on a promotions list before the U.S. Senate, I'll never have to testify before your committee, and I'll probably never see you again. So I'm going to tell you the unvarnished truth."

Iraq was on the precipice, the lieutenant colonel told the delegation. There was no electricity, no water, no prospects for employment. The public was expecting the most basic things and not getting them. If a proper mix of reconstruction aid and increased security did not arrive soon, a violent insurgency was the likely outcome.

"The guy was just chilling," remembers Graham. While Bremer and others had enumerated the infrastructure woes, the Brit's dire assessment "was an eye-opener—candor like we hadn't seen," says Kolbe.

On the flight home, McCain telephoned one of his aides in Washington. "Get me a meeting with Rumsfeld," he ordered.

Later that fall, McCain showed up at Rumsfeld's office alone. He implored the secretary to send more military forces to Iraq—advocating, as he would nearly nonstop for the ensuing three years, a troop surge. The SecDef listened impassively as the senator described what he and the others had heard. But Rumsfeld, whose vision of the military's future included a lighter and fleeter invasion force, replied with what one McCain adviser would describe as "pure rope-a-dope": Well, gee, Senator, that sure isn't what my generals are telling me. I mean, I'm happy to make a few calls, but gee…

McCain left Rumsfeld's office gnashing his teeth. "He doesn't get it," he told colleagues later. Having pushed for the war, -McCain now emerged as its leading Republican critic—the truth-teller who, unlike Bush and Rumsfeld, had seen it with his own eyes.

JOHN MCCAIN HAS been to Iraq eight times. Those trips, he maintains, have been indispensable in informing his thinking about the war. You cannot appreciate Iraq's complexity, McCain says, until you see it. Correspondingly, he tends to belittle those war critics—most noticeably presidential rival Barack Obama—whose passports are less well-worn. As his friend and surrogate Senator Lindsey Graham pointedly asserts: "It matters to go."

Of course, simply touching down in-country does not automatically confer insight: It matters not only that you go; it matters what you do once you've arrived. And throughout his political career, McCain has had plenty of practice at learning from his travels. His closest adviser, Mark Salter, ballpark-estimates that of the 200 or so national entities on the planet, McCain has visited at least 150 of them. The senator's CODELs (military-speak for "congressional delegations") involve little sleep and -meager -creature comforts. Invariably the leader of such delegations, McCain begins each morning with a gruff "March or die!" He has dragged members to Waziristan, the South Pole, and the Khyber Pass—where menacing Taliban refugees so freaked out the delegation that, as one fellow traveler remembers, "We had to leave real fast." But even at his frenetic pace, McCain is a probing inquisitor and student of history. On impulse, he'll have a novelist or an art historian summoned, or he'll demand that an American general in the dicey town of Ramadi "take us downtown—now!" And when the general declines, as was the case in 2007, McCain will duly note that Ramadi is not yet stable and will endeavor to return the following year.

McCain's visits to Iraq are of special importance because, far more than any other elected official in America—including George W. Bush—the Arizona senator was the driving force behind America's military intervention. In 1998, along with Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain had co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, which established regime change in Iraq as official U.S. policy. Three years later, he'd clearly seen September 11 as an opportunity to take out Saddam once and for all. In a speech for the Munich Security Conference—written before Bush delivered his famous January 2002 "axis of evil" speech—McCain had described an invasion of Iraq as a fait accompli: Saddam was a "terrorist," Iraq was the "next front…in our global war on terrorism," and the rest of the world was hereby on notice that "the -initiative is now ours, and we are seizing it." It was an astonishingly bellicose address, far more aggressive than even the Bush administration's public stance at that time, and eight months after delivering it, McCain became a Senate co-sponsor of the resolution authorizing military force against Iraq.

McCain got his war. And over the course of his eight visits to the country, McCain's and Iraq's ups and downs have become strikingly parallel. Though the election in November may ultimately turn on the economy or voters' doubts about Obama, John McCain and his campaign have expended considerable effort in encouraging voters to see McCain as the Warrior Who Got Things Right—the candidate who understood the realities on the ground in Iraq and had the guts to describe them as they were. And indeed, in revisiting McCain's trips to the country, a portrait emerges of an intellectually curious, incisive, energetic, and courageous politician whose leadership style would depart significantly from that of the highly unpopular George W. Bush.

But McCain's Iraq narrative also reveals less flattering traits. If it's fair to credit -McCain with sounding the alarm about Iraq's security crisis and the need for more troops, it's equally legitimate to question why he relentlessly agitated for war with so little thought given to the postwar challenges. It's also worthwhile to wonder why he paid so little heed to respected Senate colleagues like fellow Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrats Jack Reed and Joe Biden. -Hagel and Biden had visited Iraq on June 23, 2003—two months before McCain's first Iraq CODEL—and reported a "devastated" Iraqi infrastructure as well as "a precarious situation on the ground which could, if not urgently addressed, pose significant threats for American troops." Reed saw the same dangers during his initial trip, six weeks before McCain's. "I said it quite explicitly when I came back: The security situation is inextricably linked to the country's economic and social progress," he recalls. In other words, senators on both sides of the aisle had for months been saying precisely what McCain apparently heard for the first time from the British lieutenant colonel in Basra. Why hadn't he listened to them? The answer seems to be that for better or for worse, the prideful nature of the man is such that McCain trusts no one's experience as much as his own.

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