At age 79, Brent Scowcroft doesn't have much to lose if he speaks his mind. So despite his close ties to the first President Bush, he's not averse to keeping his distance from the second.
Scowcroft, a retired lieutenant general who served as national security adviser to the former president, is not nearly as sanguine as the incumbent president on the Jan. 30 National Assembly elections in Iraq.
The elections "won't be a promising transformation, and it has great potential for deepening the conflict. We may be seeing incipient civil war at this time," Scowcroft told a recent gathering sponsored by the New America Foundation.
Anxiety among President Bush's Republican base about the elections and overall U.S. policy toward Iraq seems to be rising. Larry Diamond, who served as a senior adviser for the now-disbanded, U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, sees the same danger as Scowcroft.
If the Iraqi elections are held as scheduled, it would "grease the slide to civil war," Diamond told The Washington Post. Calling Bush "a very stubborn man," he said there is "a fine line between Churchillian resolve and self-defeating obstinacy, and I think he's going over the line on this."
And a Republican congressman from North Carolina, Howard Coble, said an American troop withdrawal should be considered if the Iraqi government is unable or unwilling to "shoulder more of the heavy lifting" for its own security.
It was a highly unusual stand for a lawmaker normally supportive of Bush's policies.
Coble is troubled by mounting American casualties in Iraq and what he sees as the absence of a postwar plan to bring stability to the country. He said constituents who have contacted his office thus far this year have been evenly split on U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
The administration, however, is not budging.
Dismissing naysayers, Bush said last week that the elections will be "an incredibly hopeful experience." But he acknowledged that the insurgents are a problem. "I know it's hard," he said. "But it's hard for a reason. And the reason it's hard is because there are a handful of folks who fear freedom."
But, according to Iraqi officials, the insurgents number more than just a handful. Their estimate is 40,000 full-time insurgents and many more part-timers.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has said parts of Iraq likely won't be safe enough for people to vote - his first public acknowledgment that the violence would have such an impact.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell has said any election delay would be a mistake. "We have to move in a direction where the Iraqi people have the opportunity to choose how they will be governed," he said.
"What is the alternative to no election? Just continue going along with an appointed government? No. We need this election," Powell said.
The administration's view is that a delay would only embolden the anti-election insurgents to step up violence, leading to more election delays. "The charade will go on endlessly," says Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority.
At issue is whether the Iraqis are in a position to hold a credible election. If too many Sunnis sit out the balloting because they fear election day violence or sympathize with the insurgents, the new government could be dominated by majority Shiites, and Kurds, with Sunnis marginalized politically after eight decades in power.
The insurgents have the full backing of Osama bin Laden. "Anyone who participates in these elections ... has committed apostasy against Allah," the al-Qaida chieftain said two weeks ago.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has no illusions about democracy being a cure-all for Iraq.
But he doubts that the counterinsurgency can be defeated without the creation of a government that most Iraqis perceive as legitimate.
Steps toward that goal have to begin somewhere, and "failing to hold elections can only increase tensions even further," he says.
That would risk alienating Iraq's Shiite majority, Cordesman says, and cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the unelected leadership now in charge in Baghdad.