McCain praised for foresight on need for surge
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.