As a plane carrying a congressional delegation arrived in Iraq in August 2003, the aircraft was forced to make a corkscrew landing to avoid surface-to-air missiles.
The lawmakers led by Sen. John McCain quickly realized the situation there might not be “mission accomplished.”
Forced to travel only in armored vehicles during their 36-hour visit to Baghdad, and their movement confined mostly to the protected Green Zone, their doubt grew. As the lawmakers listened to a presentation from U.S. officials, they were jolted by the thud of an explosion. A mile away, at the U.N. headquarters compound, a suicide bomber killed 22 people, including the chief of U.N. operations in Iraq.
Later, a British colonel in Basra confirmed a sobering truth to McCain: The tide was turning against U.S.-led forces in the face of deteriorating resources.
That colonel’s words belied the “mission accomplished” banner hung behind former President George W. Bush a few months earlier on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. For years to come, it would fuel McCain’s urgent concerns, as he met with strategists and Pentagon officials and held congressional hearings.
In 2007, McCain’s support for a troop surge in Iraq finally became a reality.
“He would speak to everyone from commanding officers to privates and you could see that not only did everyone feel like they could be straight with him, but they had to be straight with him,” said Richard Fontaine, McCain’s national security adviser in the mid to late 2000s. “And that really informed the way he thought about the wars.”
It was classic McCain.
The Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee developed a global network of contacts in his 30-plus years in Congress and unmatched influence compared to many people in the upper echelons of U.S. leadership.
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