Sen. John McCain, who watched from a prison camp as America failed to deploy the overwhelming force necessary to win the Vietnam War, seized the moment after Republicans lost Congress in 2006 to push President Bush not to make the same mistake.
Mr. McCain sent a private letter to Mr. Bush on Dec. 12, 2006, that challenged the president to show the “will” to win the Iraq war by deploying 20,000 troops into Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle to beat back a growing insurgency.
The letter was the climax of a 3 1/2-year effort to persuade the president to send more troops to Iraq. The former Navy pilot, who had his arms repeatedly broken during nearly six years of captivity, couched his argument in the terms born of the Vietnam War.
“The question is one of will more than capacity,” wrote the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If we are not willing to provide the troops necessary for victory, however, victory itself will be impossible.”
Mr. McCain, whose letter is made public here for the first time, added that “surging five additional brigades into Baghdad by March” was the answer.
Mr. Bush, who had resisted Mr. McCain’s call for a troop surge for years, now praises him for persisting in his argument that expanding the war in Iraq was the way to win it.
“John recognized early on that more troops would be needed in order to achieve the security necessary for the Iraqis to make the political progress we’re seeing now,” the president told The Washington Times this week.
“He supported that action even though many said it would hurt his campaign [for president]. He didn’t care about popularity; he cared about success for our troops and our country. And now that the surge has worked, it proves that John’s judgment was correct.”
Mr. McCain’s push to increase troops in Iraq began five years ago this month, just after his first visit to Baghdad and three months after Mr. Bush had proclaimed the end of major combat before a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”
“We need a lot more military,” the senator said during a stop in Pakistan on his way home. “We need to tell the American people, and I think they’ll support it.”
A week later in Washington, he delivered the same message to any senior official who would listen: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. In November, Mr. McCain warned about the “lessons” of his own war.
“We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal.”
For much of his 3 1/2-year advocacy for the surge - an attempt to persuade the president to adopt a strategy that his commanders said was unnecessary, that Democrats in Congress angrily opposed and that Mr. McCain’s Republican colleagues bitterly resented - the former Navy pilot was an army of one.
But after Republicans lost control of Congress in November 2006, Mr. McCain gained leverage in his argument with a president who was soon to face an empowered majority of Democrats and a Republican panicked by the idea that the election was a mandate on Iraq.
Soon the architects of the failing strategy in Iraq - the generals and their civilian superiors - would be banished, and a dissenting general who had sought an increase in troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy would take charge of the war in Iraq.
The president, with no acknowledgement then of Mr. McCain’s arguments, would adopt the senator’s plan. Democrats who predicted the failure of what they mockingly called “the McCain surge” would fall silent when the 20,000-troop increase led to a dramatic reduction of violence, falling to a low of just 11 troops killed in July.
“They don’t call it that anymore,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said, smiling in triumph.
The South Carolina Republican, an early convert to the McCain cause who observed much of the senator’s backdoor efforts, is unabashed in his praise for his longtime friend, blinking back a tear as he recalls trips he took to Iraq with his colleague.
“Without John McCain, there would never have been the surge,” he said emphatically.
Mr. McCain declined to be interviewed for this account, privately telling an aide, “I won’t take credit for the surge.” Other top advisers said he won’t talk about private conversations with the president and the military leaders serving under him. The man who refused to leave his Vietnam prison camp ahead of those captured before him is said to be determined not to take credit for success that belongs to soldiers.
Mr. McCain’s views contrast sharply with those of his Democratic rival in the November election. Sen. Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, joined his party’s elders to oppose the surge, even after military leaders agreed that it was necessary, and now only grudgingly acknowledges the success of the surge.
Mr. McCain’s plea for change in Iraq, and how he finally accomplished it, is detailed here through scores of documents and interviews conducted by The Times during a six-month investigation.
Just six weeks after the start of the war, Mr. Bush flew in a Lockheed S-3 Viking fighter-bomber to a smooth landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln as the aircraft carrier bobbed in the Pacific in May 2003. Its crew had just returned from combat operations in the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Bush was greeted by the crew with wild enthusiasm, posing for photographs in his flight suit with pilots and ship crewmen beneath a huge banner boasting “Mission Accomplished.” The White House would later say the banner was meant in salute only to the crew of the Abraham Lincoln.
“In the battle of Iraq,” the president said, “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” But he warned there was still “difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous.”
In the following weeks, hawks in the Senate who had pushed for war in Iraq began to feel vindicated. Their prime spokesman - a man literally born into the military and the progeny of two Navy heroes - Mr. McCain had declared a week after the war began March 19, 2003, “there’s no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there’s no doubt in my mind, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators.”
Three weeks after the president’s speech, Mr. McCain took to the chamber’s floor to proclaim an American triumph of arms. “We won a massive victory in a few weeks, and we did so with very limited loss of American and allied lives,” he declared.
The senator felt the same way a month later, when Fox News’ Neil Cavuto stated flatly that “many argue the conflict isn’t over.”
“Well, then,” replied the senator, “why was there a banner that said ‘Mission Accomplished’ on the aircraft carrier? The major conflict is over.”
But this view changed after he went to Iraq in August 2003 and met a blunt-spoken British commander in Basra, where a disintegrating situation was turning to chaos.
The British colonel
Unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Mr. McCain did not take a vacation or junket during the lengthy summer recess in 2003. Instead, along with Mr. Graham, he went with a congressional delegation to Iraq. With his trademark curiosity and adherence to Ronald Reagan’s famous caution to “trust but verify,” the senator wanted to see for himself the victory that America had won so quickly.
Once on the ground, the senators were taken into Basra, a Shi’ite city in southeastern Iraq controlled by British troops. “I never will forget it,” Mr. Graham recalled. “He gets up and starts speaking, looks at Senator McCain and says, ‘You know, I’m a British citizen, I don’t pay taxes in America and I will never vote for you and I will probably never see you again, but here’s what I think: We don’t have it right - we don’t have enough people, I don’t have the right kind of people. If we do not get ahead of this, it is going to be a very big problem.’”
“That British colonel opened our eyes beyond anything else. You can be briefed in Washington, they can show you charts, but when you get on the ground and actually talk to the people it’s a completely different story,” Mr. Graham said.
The two senators quickly concluded that conditions inside Iraq were clearly worse than American commanders were reporting to the White House. While Mr. McCain and the others were in Iraq, 17 people, including the top U.N. envoy who was a key figure in the political transformation of Iraq, were slain in an attack on an installation of the United Nations. The attack occurred as the senators were meeting with U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of U.S. troops.
Mr. McCain, characteristically blunt, looked the ambassador and the general “right in the eye,” Mr. Graham recalled, “and said, ‘You’re going to have to start shooting some of these looters.’ It was his belief that the looting and the other signs of the growing insurgency had to be dealt with and he asked point-blank, ‘Do you have enough troops?’ Everybody said ‘Yes.’”
Mr. McCain’s opinion changed on that first trip. The campaign to oust Saddam Hussein and neutralize Iraq’s military had been won, but the peace was at risk because of an insurgency that, fueled in part by Iran and Syria, had quickly materialized. The insurgents were gaining.
“I think there’s a danger that unless we do what’s necessary quickly, that we could find ourselves in an extremely - and I emphasize extremely - difficult situation,” he said Aug. 29 in an interview on National Public Radio. “We need more troops.”
The senator said on “Meet the Press” that another division of troops - 20,000 soldiers - was needed to secure Iraq, and repeated the call for two months.
His rhetoric crystallized in November 2003 in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. With inside-the-Beltway punditocracy beginning to call Iraq a “quagmire” - the term that came to define the Vietnam War - the senator repeatedly insisted that “Iraq is no Vietnam.”
But he again called for more troops and a strengthened will to win the war. “The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives,” he said. “Simply put, there does not appear to be a strategy behind our current force levels in Iraq, other than to preserve the illusion that we have sufficient forces in place to meet our objectives.”
As evidence, he cited Gen. Sanchez’s acknowledgement from the ground in Iraq that his forces could not handle new battles. “If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt,” the senator quoted the general, “that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for.”
In this speech, he said another division should be deployed to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, which stretches from Baghdad west to Ramadi and north to Tikrit. In what would become a frequent refrain, he lashed Mr. Rumsfeld, who just three days earlier had repeated his emphatic assertion that no more troops were needed.
“I hope that Secretary Rumsfeld would recognize that - the realities on the ground. And the realities on the ground are that things are not getting better. … However you do it, I think we need more people there.”
The day after that, the defense secretary called to invite Mr. McCain to breakfast. The meeting the next morning was chilly; Mr. Rumsfeld opened by saying: “I read your speech.” (Mr. McCain later joked that “that must have been an enjoyable experience for him.”)
The defense secretary, who had made his own visit to Iraq in September, was perplexed by Mr. McCain’s assessment of the conditions on the ground, said a senior McCain adviser who asked not to be named because the meeting was private. But the senator spelled out what he thought was needed.
“He told Secretary Rumsfeld there was danger that the peace was being lost and asked that they ramp up both the troop strength and the civilian assistance programs,” the senior adviser said.
The senator “made a very passionate case that we need to look at adding more troops,” said Mr. Graham, who talked with Mr. McCain soon after the meeting with the defense secretary concluded.
“In that first visit [to Iraq] in August, it was very subtle as to what was going on, and it wasn’t obvious to everybody that the country was going into chaos, but John could see that the dynamics were all wrong,” Mr. Graham said.
As the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has oversight of military operations and considerable authority in shaping the Defense Department’s budget, Mr. McCain offered blunt advice.
“McCain believed the Pentagon was spending too much time on search and destroy missions that were ineffective, when in fact the troops needed to focus on the growing threats to civilians targeted by the insurgency, creating a chaos that could destabilize the entire country,” the McCain adviser said.
The secretary was not persuaded.
“Rumsfeld responded by assuring Senator McCain that the commanders had told him they had all the assets they needed on the ground,” the adviser said.
An aide to the secretary said Mr. McCain’s account is incorrect.
“In November 2003, Secretary Rumsfeld and Senator McCain had one of a number of conversations that ended with the two in agreement on the need to win in Iraq,” Keith Urbahn said. “Senator McCain may prefer to characterize their meeting as a Showdown at the OK Corral, but that’s not straight talk. It’s a fairy tale.”
Mr. Rumsfeld wrote a two-sentence summary shortly after his meeting, according to his office. “I had breakfast with Senator McCain. He said, ‘The answer may not be more troops in Iraq, but the answer is not the status quo.’ I agree with him.”
Mr. McCain nevertheless left the breakfast table convinced that the Pentagon was out of touch with reality, a conclusion that eventually would drive him to become one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s harshest critics. He made several additional private attempts to persuade the Pentagon and the White House to make changes in both strategy and tactics, and when those efforts failed, he decided to use his influence as a senator and a war hero to push the Pentagon to send more troops.
The Bully-pulpit years
The next three years would set David against Goliath, the 5-foot-7-inch, 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 Secretary 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 three-page 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.”
Even though Mr. McCain and his colleagues had prevailed, the trio of senators who had pushed for the surge restrained the natural urge to celebrate. “It was also the day you realized you just helped to expand this war,” Mr. Graham said. “That wasn’t lost on John, me or Joe Lieberman.”
The 41st vote
The next nine months would be dark and solemn days for Mr. McCain. With his reputation on the line, his bid for the presidency was tied tightly to the success of the strategy he had persuaded Mr. Bush to embrace.
Throughout the winter and spring of 2007, the senator, along with the help of a few colleagues and Mr. Lieberman, would struggle to keep Democrats in Congress from cutting troops or funds for Iraq.
Partisan bickering broke out almost immediately. The last of the surge troops Mr. Bush ordered would not arrive in Iraq until June, but less than a week after the president’s announcement on Jan. 10, the top Senate Democrats, joined by a leading dissident Republican, introduced a resolution opposing the surge.
The resolution fell just a few votes short of getting to the floor for debate.
Over the following months, the Republicans, along with one or two straying Democrats and always Mr. Lieberman, withstood more than a dozen attempts to reduce funding for the war in Iraq or to set a timetable for troop withdrawal.
A steady drumbeat of Democratic voices called the surge a failure even before all the fresh troops were in place. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exploited a succession of car bombings in Iraq that killed more than 200 Iraqis in April 2007 to declare the surge a failure.
“I believe … that this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything,” he said.
Mr. McCain, campaigning in Mr. Reid’s home state of Nevada, hotly disputed the Senate leader. “It seems to me Senator Reid has lost all sense of priority.”
But on vote after vote the McCain alliance held, preventing a congressional mandate for withdrawal. Mr. Lieberman was the key to the achievement. The senator from Connecticut, an early and consistent supporter of the war, became an outcast in his own party, taking relentless criticism from the powerful antiwar flank, much of it coming from MoveOn.org.
In the 2006 Democratic primaries, Mr. Lieberman even lost his party’s nomination. Undeterred, he changed his party affiliation to independent and won decisively in the general election, sealing the victory that separated him from the Democratic powers. In 2007, though continuing as a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, he became Mr. McCain’s 41st vote, a reliable ally of the 40 other senators whom Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham had assembled to prevent votes on withdrawal.
“We couldn’t have done it without Joe,” Mr. Graham said. “He replaced a [lost] Republican vote. He gave us the vote that we needed on many occasions to avoid pulling the plug on Iraq.”
The dark days
But as Mr. McCain was winning the battle to preserve prospects for victory in Iraq, the wheels of his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus came hurtling off.
His campaign had become badly bloated and was bleeding money. His standing was plummeting in the polls as violence spiked in Iraq and public faith in the wisdom of the surge declined. The senator slashed his staff and reporters abandoned the candidate, the story moving on to the lively presidential campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
His organization nearly broke, Mr. McCain began traveling on scheduled commercial flights, often squeezing into a seat in economy, instead of the comfortable chartered private jets that are the mark of successful campaigns. Sometimes aides drove him through the night to campaign events. “He went through the airport carrying his own bags,” Mr. Graham recalled. “We were fifth in a four-person race.”
Mr. McCain nevertheless kept a stiff upper lip, joking in New Hampshire that “in the words of Chairman Mao, it’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”
With Americans about to embark on a long weekend of backyard barbecues, cold beer and fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July of 2007, several candidates declared a timeout. Not Mr. McCain. He set off for Iraq, again.
A renewed faith
He accepted an invitation from Gen. Petraeus to spend America’s birthday with the troops and to attend a re-enlistment ceremony. Nearly 600 men and women packed themselves into the Al Faw Palace, once used as a duck-hunting retreat by Saddam Hussein.
The ceremony at the palace, rechristened by the Americans as Camp Victory, included the naturalization of 166 soldiers as American citizens. Gen. Petraeus administered the oath of enlistment. When the senator stepped up to speak, he could see troops hanging off balconies and crowding staircases to get a glimpse of a man they credited for sending them reinforcements.
Two pairs of empty boots stood upright in a chair near the senator, a melancholy reminder of two soldiers killed before they could take their scheduled oaths as Americans.
“I know it’s not possible for even the most grateful nation to compensate you in kind for the measure of devotion that you have with great personal sacrifice given our country,” Mr. McCain told the dogface soldiers. “We have incurred a debt to you that we can never repay in full. We can offer you only the small tribute of our humility.
“As you know, the war in which you have fought has divided the American people. But it has divided no Americans in their admiration for you. We all honor you.
“I have lived a long, eventful and blessed life,” he said. “I have had the good fortune of knowing personally a great many brave and selfless patriots who sacrificed and shed blood to defend their country. But I’ve known none braver nor better than you. You are my inspiration, and your country’s.”
Mr. McCain arrived in Baghdad weary and discouraged. He left Iraq energized and eager to continue his own struggle, which he knew paled in comparison with those of the men and women he had just met - and he met every one, staying for hours.
“It was just John and myself in the plane, with a few staff folks,” Mr. Graham recalled of the flight home. “I never will forget, as we took off he looked over at me and said, ‘If these kids can do this, we can get our campaign back going.’ It rededicated him to winning the primary.”
A campaign shift
Mr. McCain arrived home and hit the ground running. He trimmed fat out of his campaign bureaucracy and would run it on a shoestring budget of $1 million a month. “This campaign is going to be won on the ground, vote by vote,” he wrote to his supporters in a fundraising e-mail appeal, “and I’m convinced that if every voter learns of my unparalleled experience, we will win.” He made his resolve to win in Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign, embarking on what staffers dubbed “The No Surrender Tour.”
The tour started in Veterans of Foreign Wars huts and American Legion posts, aimed first at the millions of veterans across the nation. He took several men who had shared prison cells with him, along with veterans of the fighting in Iraq. They distributed stickers vowing “No Surrender.”
His bus zigzagged across Iowa, over to New Hampshire and down to South Carolina, and at nearly every stop he displayed the full-page advertisement in the New York Times, posted by MoveOn.org mocking Gen. Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”
“It’s disgraceful,” Mr. McCain told voters in Iowa, displaying his anger, and challenged his Democratic opponents to denounce the message.
The badgering questions from reporters, asking whether and when he would drop out of the race, began to recede as he stayed stubbornly on message: The surge will work, given time.
That message would soon be delivered loud and clear by the very general in charge of making the surge work. Mr. McCain’s future in politics was clearly at stake.
The buildup was dramatic: Gen. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified before the House and the Senate beginning Sept. 11, 2007, six years to the day after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The White House had deflected the verdict on the success of the surge until the general and ambassador could testify, and now, against a media backdrop of speculation that the administration would be forced to re-evaluate the war, Democratic critics in Congress waited to pounce.
But Gen. Petraeus, in full dress khaki with dozens of television lights playing on the four stars on his shoulders and a lavish array of medals and service ribbons on his chest, sat unbowed and unmoved through six hours of grueling questions. “As a bottom line upfront,” he said, “the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met. In recent months, in the face of tough enemies in the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena.
“The level of security incidents has decreased significantly since the start of the surge of offensive operations in mid-June.”
The general took the bat out of Democrats’ hands. “Based on all this, and on the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve.”
When he appeared the next day to answer more questions from senators, Mr. Obama was ready. “I think the surge has had some impact, as I suggested, ” he said, his “just one question” prefaced by a seven-minute speech. But he added: “I would argue that the impact has been relatively modest given the investment.”
Mr. McCain was briefer. “Gen. Petraeus, it’s astonishing the number of things that people come up with, but one of the latest statements is that the surge had nothing to do with Anbar province and the rather stunning success we’ve had there. How do you respond to that?”
“Well,” the general replied, “the success in Anbar province is a political success but it is a political success that has been enabled very much by our forces, who have been enabled by having additional forces.”
Mr. McCain cut in with the question to emphasize a point: “Would it have happened without the surge?”
Gen. Petraeus replied: “It would not have happened as quickly without the surge and I don’t know whether we could have capitalized on it the way that we have without the surge.”
Mr. Graham sums up the effect of the exchange succinctly: “Petraeus comes back, Crocker comes back in September, and they knock it out of the park. We’re in the ballgame now.”
‘Mac is back’
McCain aides - and especially the candidate himself - thought they now knew how to proceed with the presidential campaign: The senator had survived by being himself, being true to long-held beliefs, and they decided he should continue with that strategy.
Mr. McCain surrounded himself with a tight group of longtime friends and aides and set his sights on New Hampshire. “After we had the meltdown and went from a national campaign of 30 states down to two or three, that put a lot more emphasis on New Hampshire,” said Steve Duprey, a former Republican chairman in New Hampshire who now is a top aide for Mr. McCain.
The senator later joked that he had spent so much time in the small state that some residents thought he lived there. Continuing as if he were continuing the quest of eight years earlier, he held more than 100 town-hall meetings, telling his unfunny jokes at every stop and shaking every hand offered along the way.
As the surge and the new counterinsurgency strategy began to reduce violence in Iraq, the moribund campaign quickened, and soon was back on the front pages and on the nightly television newscasts.
Mr. McCain began to enjoy a little winner’s luck. The front-running Mr. Giuliani skipped the Iowa caucuses and Mr. Romney was overtaken by an unlikely upstart, Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor. Mr. McCain followed Iowa with a solid win in New Hampshire, delivering a rousing victory speech to supporters waving “Mac is Back” placards. Like American prospects in Iraq, his campaign was reborn.
Over the following weeks, Mr. Romney won his native state of Michigan, and a second McCain victory in South Carolina blunted the Giuliani strategy of focusing on Florida. By the time the campaign got to there in late January, the McCain momentum was permanent, and he was en route to clinching the nomination.
Since then, Mr. McCain has painted his unwavering support for the surge as evidence of his ability to be commander in chief. He cites Mr. Obama’s yearlong denial of American success in Iraq as evidence that Mr. Obama lacks the steadiness, foresight and judgment to make an effective commander in chief.
This summer, the Republican and his allies sharpened their attacks on Mr. Obama, questioning why he took just a single trip to Iraq before opposing the surge. “If the only time you had been to Iraq was in January 2006 and you’re thinking about running for president as a Democrat, you heard what you wanted to hear,” Mr. Graham said, echoing a now-common attack on Mr. Obama. “He saw what he wanted to see, he came back, and declared the war lost.”
An exchange between Mr. Obama and Katie Couric of CBS News, conducted in Amman, Jordan, in the midst of his extensive overseas trip to the Middle East and Europe in July, illustrates the presumptive Democratic nominee’s difficulty in addressing the surge now that it has worked.
“You raised a lot of eyebrows on this trip, saying, even knowing what you know now, you still would not have supported the surge,” Mrs. Couric told him. “People may be scratching their heads and saying, ‘Why?’”
When Mr. Obama deflected the question, she broke in: “But didn’t the surge - ”
“Let me finish, Katie,” he said.
She did, but later broke in again, trying to pin down a direct answer.
“Katie, as … you’ve asked me three different times, and I have said repeatedly that there is no doubt that our troops helped to reduce violence. There’s no doubt.”
Mrs. Couric persisted. “But yet you’re saying, given what you know now, you still wouldn’t support it, so I’m just trying to understand this. … I really don’t mean to belabor this, senator, because I’m really, I’m trying to figure out your position. Do you think the level of security in Iraq … would exist today without the surge?”
His impatience showing, Mr. Obama replied: “Katie, I have no idea what would have happened had we applied my approach, which was to put more pressure on the Iraqis to arrive at a political reconciliation. So this is all hypotheticals. What I can say is that there’s no doubt that our U.S. troops have contributed to a reduction of violence in Iraq.”
Minutes later, Mr. McCain sat for an interview with the CBS anchor, blasting his presidential opponent and setting out what is at stake in the November election.
“Senator Obama has indicated by his failure to acknowledge the success of the surge that he would rather lose a war than lose a campaign,” he said. “Senator Obama does not understand the challenges we face and he did not understand the need for the surge, and the fact that he did not understand that and still denies that it has succeeded, I think the American people will make a judgement.”
Researcher John Sopko contributed to this story.