McCain praised for fore­sight on need for surge

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

Sec­ond of two parts

The next three years would set David against Go­liath, the 5-foot-7inch, 165-pound se­na­tor from Ari­zona against the heavy­weights in the White House and the Pen­tagon, the very men and women who had shaped the strat­egy that was fail­ing. He got lit­tle help from his Se­nate col­leagues.

“Repub­li­cans em­braced the idea, ‘Well, this vi­o­lence is ba­si­cally man­u­fac­tured by the me­dia; it’s not as bad as it looks,’ “ Mr. Gra­ham re­called. “Democrats were so over the top — ‘This is hope­less and we can’t win’ — so John’s voice, which was con­sis­tent, was drowned in the rau­cous clamor of par­ti­san pol­i­tics.”

In Novem­ber 2003, Mr. McCain took his frus­tra­tions pub­lic. Un­less the United States im­me­di­ately dis­patched at least 15,000 ad­di­tional troops to Iraq, he said, the United States risked “the most se­ri­ous Amer­i­can de­feat on the global stage since Viet­nam.”

He con­tin­ued even in the midst of the 2004 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign. Risk­ing alien­at­ing the pres­i­dent, whom he joined on the cam­paign trail, Mr. McCain re­buked Mr. Rums­feld for re­fus­ing to chal­lenge his mil­i­tary com­man­ders.

“It’s not up to the com­man­ders on the ground. It’s up to the lead­er­ship of the coun­try to make th­ese de­ci­sions,” Mr. McCain said. “That’s why we elect them and have civil­ian supremacy. We’re now fac­ing a ter­ri­ble in­sur­gency.”

De­spite his in­creas­ingly sharp crit­i­cism of the con­duct of the war, he met fre­quently with Mr. Bush, some­times in the Oval Of­fice and oc­ca­sion­ally aboard Air Force One, en route to cam­paign stops to­gether. Their re­la­tion­ship had grown cor­dial, the bit­ter bat­tle of the 2000 Repub­li­can pri­mary bat­tle for­got­ten and for­given.

Then, just two weeks be­fore the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Mr. McCain pub­licly dis­puted Mr. Bush’s as­ser­tion that suf­fi­cient troops were on the ground in Iraq. “I think that we need more troops in Iraq,” he said. “I’ve thought that for a long time, elec­tion or no elec­tion.”

By the end of the year, Mr. McCain was con­temp­tu­ous of Mr. Rums­feld, declar­ing that he had “no con­fi­dence” in the Pen­tagon chief. “I have stren­u­ously ar­gued for larger troop num­bers in Iraq, in­clud­ing the right kind of troops — lin­guists, spe­cial forces, civil af­fairs and so forth,” he said. He kept up the pres­sure as the war stretched into the new year. “We’ve got stay and ex­pand.”

Path to elec­tion de­feat

Con­di­tions in Iraq con­tin­ued to spi­ral down­ward. Ca­su­al­ties in­creased. The play­ers on the yel­low sofa in the Oval Of­fice — Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney, Miss Rice, Mr. Rums­feld, mem­bers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — dug in their heels. No one was ready to de­part from the strat­egy they de­signed, and each thought that a few tweaks of tac­tics would lead to tri­umph. Democrats, mean­while, con­tin­ued to re­lent­lessly at­tack Repub­li­cans for “stay­ing the course of fail­ure.”

By Novem­ber 2005, Mr. McCain’s frus­tra­tion be­came bit­ter res­ig­na­tion. “It will take time, prob­a­bly years, and mean more Amer­i­can ca­su­al­ties to win in Iraq,” he said.

The White House would soon raise ex­pec­ta­tions of with­draw­ing troops; Mr. Bush, with midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions com­ing in Novem­ber, him­self as­serted in early 2006 that the United States could soon be­gin to bring some troops home, pro­vided Iraqis be­gan to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for sav­ing them­selves.

The dec­la­ra­tions fur­ther ex­as­per­ated Mr. McCain, who was re­duced to re­peat­ing him­self. “You know, I’ve al­ways said that we needed more troops over there. I have said that for years,” he said in 2006.

Across the par­ti­san aisle, a new power cen­ter was emerg­ing in the Demo­cratic Party. Mr. Obama, a fit young fresh­man se­na­tor with a golden tongue, was putting to­gether an up­start pres­i­den­tial cam­paign built on grass-roots dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the Iraq war. With Mr. McCain mov­ing to the front of the Repub­li­can field for 2008, the man from Illi­nois sought to draw dif­fer­ences be­tween them, em­pha­siz­ing his oft-stated op­po­si­tion to the war, and in par­tic­u­lar his be­lief that send­ing more troops to Iraq would ac­cel­er­ate the rush to fail­ure.

“Given the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion, it is clear at this point that we can­not, through putting in more troops or main­tain­ing the pres­ence that we have, ex­pect that some­how the sit­u­a­tion is go­ing to im­prove, and we have to do some­thing sig­nif­i­cant to break the pat­tern that we’ve been in right now,” Mr. Obama told audiences as the midterms ap­proached.

The pres­i­dent con­tin­ued to de­fer to his com­man­ders on the ground, in­clud­ing Gen. Ge­orge W. Casey Jr., the man in charge in Iraq. “Gen­eral Casey will make the de­ci­sion as to how many troops we have there,” the pres­i­dent said. “I’ve told him this. I said, ‘You de­cide, gen­eral.’ “

On the eve of the 2006 elec­tions that would rout Repub­li­cans ev­ery­where, Mr. Bush pledged to stand by the deeply un­pop­u­lar Mr. Rums­feld. He could stay as de­fense sec­re­tary for the length of his term as pres­i­dent, Mr. Bush de­clared.

Then the vot­ers spoke, hand­ing Mr. Bush the most dam­ag­ing loss of his pres­i­dency and open­ing his eyes to change.

‘A new idea’

The Repub­li­can losses would lead in­ex­orably to the surge. Mr. Rums­feld re­signed, and key men in uni­form, like Gen. Casey, who for years had as­sured the ad­min­is­tra­tion he had enough troops at hand, were pushed aside.

“The irony of ironies, in my opin­ion, is that if the Repub­li­cans had not lost in 2006, the House and the Se­nate,” Mr. Gra­ham said. “I doubt Sec- re­tary Rums­feld would have ever been re­placed, and when he left it gave an open­ing to a new idea.”

As the long run-up to the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ap­proached, Mr. McCain re­dou­bled his sup­port for the surge. This time, he would have the pres­i­dent’s un­di­vided at­ten­tion af­ter the midterm de­feat that Mr. Bush him­self called “a thumpin’.”

Mr. McCain planned his fourth trip to Iraq in De­cem­ber 2006, and spent the early part of the month per­suad­ing Mr. Bush to ac­cept the ne­ces­sity of send­ing more troops. He met the pres­i­dent at the White House on Dec. 6, the day that the bi­par­ti­san Iraq Study Group, a dis­tin­guished panel of politi­cians and diplo­mats led by James A. Baker III, sec­re­tary of state dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Mr. Bush’s fa­ther, and Lee H. Hamil­ton, the widely re­spected for­mer Demo­cratic con­gress­man from In­di­ana, de­liv­ered a re­port urg­ing Mr. Bush to be­gin with­draw­ing U.S. com­bat forces from Iraq by the beginning of 2008. The al­ter­na­tive was “a slide into chaos.”

Repub­li­cans were stunned. Many pan­icked. Sen. John W. Warner of Vir­ginia, who had been an early and strong sup­porter of the war ef­fort, joined Demo­cratic crit­ics to ex­plore the idea of man­dat­ing a with­drawal from Iraq.

“They thought Iraq was the death blow to the Repub­li­can Party,” Mr. Gra­ham re­called. “So you had a group of dif­fer­ent Repub­li­cans com­ing up with dif­fer­ent plans that had the same re­sult. We would be­gin to end com­bat op­er­a­tions and pull out.”

Mr. McCain saw re­treat as de­feat. He turned to two of his clos­est friends, Mr. Gra­ham and Sen. Joe Lieber­man, to de­vise a strat­egy to push aside Pen­tagon crit­ics of the surge, to con­vince the pres­i­dent that the surge was the right strat­egy and fi­nally to thwart ef­forts to force a con­gres­sional vote on a troop with­drawal, which Democrats might win.

“I think John’s finest mo­ment, and in many ways mine and Se­na­tor Lieber­man’s, was to stop the stam­pede of Repub­li­cans who wanted to find ways out of Iraq,” Mr. Gra­ham said.

Mr. McCain, lead­ing in the early Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial polls for the 2008 nom­i­na­tion, used his celebrity in front of the cam­era to make a case for the new strat­egy and to buck up de­mor­al­ized Repub­li­cans. Block­ing a Se­nate vote on with­drawal was cru­cial.

The con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute sent a draft re­port to Mr. McCain from its own panel, dubbed the Iraq Plan­ning Group. Un­like the Baker-Hamil­ton group, the AEI plan mir­rored Mr. McCain’s, call­ing for more troops in Iraq.

Mr. Gra­ham as­sumed dual roles. He acted first as a floor whip in the Se­nate, col­lect­ing and cod­dling the 41 votes needed to pre­vent a vote to with­draw troops on a spe­cific timetable.

Fur­ther be­hind the scenes, he worked with Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, who was poised to take over man­age­ment of the Iraq war in 2007. The two dis­cussed a spe­cific coun­terin­sur­gency plan that would fo­cus on restor­ing se­cu­rity in the streets of Iraq’s most danger­ous cities.

Gen. Pe­traeus was a coun­terin­sur­gency ex­pert and a strong ad­vo­cate of in­creas­ing troop lev­els.

“There were a lot of late-night phone calls where Gen­eral Pe­traeus and I talked,” Mr. Gra­ham re­called. “And then I’d be re­lay­ing ev­ery­thing to John, who was on the cam­paign trail.” Armed with the AEI panel’s con­clu­sions and Gen. Pe­traeus’ think­ing on how to im­ple­ment a surge, Mr. McCain set out to change the pres­i­dent’s mind.

Let­ter to the pres­i­dent

He made his case in a blunt three­p­age let­ter to Mr. Bush. “While there’s no doubt that a num­ber of changes in pol­icy are nec­es­sary, I be­lieve that none will be suc­cess­ful without an in­crease in the num­ber of U.S. forces there,” Mr. McCain wrote.

He detailed a plan dis­tilled from Gen. Pe­traeus’ think­ing for a surge of 20,000 fresh troops. “Only the pres­ence of ad­di­tional coali­tion forces will give the Iraqi gov­ern­ment the op­por­tu­nity to re­store its au­thor­ity and in­stall the gov­ern­ment,” he wrote. “Surg­ing five ad­di­tional brigades into Bagh­dad by March, task­ing them with tra­di­tional coun­terin­sur­gency ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing pro­tec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and in­ten­sive re­con­struc­tion, would give the coali­tion, in con­cert with Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, a real chance to suc­ceed in its mis­sion. The surge shouldn’t be lim­ited by an ar­ti­fi­cial timeline.”

The doc­u­ment was no­table not only for its detailed anal­y­sis, but for its pep talk to Mr. Bush, which in­clud­ing a whiff of a lec­ture.

The hero of an un­pop­u­lar war ul­ti­mately lost in Viet­nam, Mr. McCain ar­gued that the pri­mary ob­sta­cle to winning in Iraq was the gov­ern­ment’s in­abil­ity to make a tough de­ci­sion, com­mit more troops and stick with the plan.

“The ques­tion is one of will more than ca­pac­ity,” he wrote Mr. Bush. “I be­lieve suc­cess in Iraq is still pos­si­ble, and that, by fi­nally bring­ing se­cu­rity to Bagh­dad, and by re­duc­ing the vi­o­lence plagu­ing other ar­eas, we can give Iraqis the best pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity to con­struct a sta­ble and self-gov­ern­ing state. Our na­tional se­cu­rity com­pels us to try, and to try im­me­di­ately.”

Back to Iraq, then de­ci­sion

Mr. McCain set off at once for Bagh­dad again, to hear first­hand from com­man­ders on the ground. On this, his fourth trip to Iraq, con­di­tions had again clearly grown worse.

When he re­turned to Wash­ing­ton, he met with Gen. Peter Pace, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to spell out “where he thought things needed to go,” the top McCain ad­viser said.

Sev­eral days later, on Dec. 18, Robert M. Gates — who had been pres­i­dent of Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity and a mem­ber of the Iraq Study Group that rec­om­mended with­drawal from Iraq — suc­ceeded Mr. Rums­feld as de­fense sec­re­tary. The next day, Mr. Gates, too, slipped off to Iraq to see the war for him­self. “I do ex­pect to give a re­port to the pres­i­dent on what I’ve learned and my per­cep­tions,” he said on his last day in Bagh­dad.

The sec­re­tary de­liv­ered his find­ings at the pres­i­dent’s Prairie Chapel Ranch shortly af­ter Christ­mas, join­ing the gen­er­als and se­nior Bush aides. But the pres­i­dent gave a hint of a change in his think­ing while Mr. Gates was still in Bagh­dad.

At a year-end press con­fer­ence, the pres­i­dent dis­pensed with his usual pledge to heed ground com­man­ders in Iraq, say­ing he would lis­ten but not nec­es­sar­ily de­fer to the gen­er­als. The same day, Gen. John Abizaid, a Rums­feld fa­vorite and one of the hold­outs against chang­ing strat­egy in Iraq, re­tired as com­man­der of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand.

Gen. Casey, an­other of the old guard and the com­man­der in Iraq, would ex­ile him­self from the core group just be­fore New Year’s Day. Ex­press­ing doubt about the wis­dom of a surge, he told the New York Times on Dec. 28 that “It’s al­ways been my view that a heavy and sus­tained Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence was not go­ing to solve the prob­lems in Iraq.”

The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, from the pres­i­dent down, was now poised to move to the new strat­egy. When the pres­i­dent re­turned from Texas to Wash­ing­ton in early 2007, a let­ter from Mr. Lieber­man and Mr. Gra­ham awaited him.

“Now is the time for bold and decisive lead­er­ship to chart a new course for­ward in Iraq,” the se­na­tors wrote in their Jan. 8, let­ter, echo­ing the calls of Mr. McCain. “Some of the nec­es­sary changes, in­clud­ing new lead­er­ship in both the civil­ian and mil­i­tary lead­er­ship, have al­ready been made. We also strongly en­cour­age you to send ad­di­tional Amer­i­can troops to Iraq to im­prove the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion on the ground. For far too long we have not had enough troops in Iraq to pro­vide se­cu­rity. It is time to cor­rect this mis­take.”

Two days later, on Jan. 10, the com­man­der in chief ad­dressed the na­tion in prime time to an­nounce he would do just that.

“It is clear that we need to change our strat­egy in Iraq,” a grim Mr. Bush said. “Our past ef­forts to se­cure Bagh­dad failed for two prin­ci­pal rea­sons: There were not enough Iraqi and Amer­i­can troops to se­cure neigh­bor­hoods that had been cleared of ter­ror­ists and in­sur­gents. And there were too many re­stric­tions on the troops we did have.”

Re­searcher John Sopko con­trib­uted to this story.


AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Sen. John McCain meets in Iraq with Gen. Pe­traeus in April 2007, even as Democrats hard­ened their po­si­tion on link­ing Iraq war fund­ing to a troop pull­out dead­line.

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