Rand Beers' final White House assignment after working for four presidents was to fig ure out whether attacking Iraq would leave the back door open to another al-Qaida strike on the homeland.
"But as we worked through that problem," said Beers, then a counterterrorism adviser to President Bush, "it became clear to me that by the form of our entry into Iraq we were also diminishing our ability to operate more broadly in the world."
By early 2003, the coalition of the willing already had become much less willing.
Any "huge diminution of support from that outpouring we had after 9/11" tied to an Iraq attack would severely compromise the fight against al-Qaida, Beers said in an interview Friday before a speech to the City Club of Cleveland.
So Beers quit.
He walked out on the president five days before the Iraq war started, after a government career that dated to 1971, following Vietnam combat at the head of a Marine rifle company.
Then Beers switched horses - or seemed to.
Within months, the former aide to three Republican presidents popped up as national security adviser to Sen. John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign.
Actually, Beers says, he was a Democrat all along: "The only Republican I ever voted for was Spiro Agnew, when he ran for governor of Maryland." That was in 1966.
"I had no problem, as a career foreign service officer and civil servant, working with any administration on foreign policy issues, until the current administration," he said. "Part of that is when you're a younger person you don't necessarily have to play in all of the highly politicized issues. It became impossible to avoid when I went back to the White House for the last time."
After Kerry lost, Beers started what he calls a "progressive" think tank called the National Security Network. He doesn't exactly describe it this way, but its real intent is to beef up Democrats' national security credentials for the next run at the White House.
His potential wards need all the help they can get.
The Democratic front-runners, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are ducking hard questions on Iraq and landing soft punches on each other instead.
Rather than Republicans calling Dems soft, other Dems are calling Dems soft.
Yet the ammunition is there: All the qualms Beers had in early 2003 have come true.
Three recent National Intelligence Estimates on Iraq and the terrorism war say al-Qaida has fed off the Iraq chaos to recruit, franchise, perfect its killing methods and advertise its terrorist wares around the globe.
Instead of Iraq becoming the crucible in which America would prove its military prowess against rogues and terrorists, it has become the touchstone for resistance. Instead of making America safer, Iraq has put America in greater peril, as terrorist cells become more diffuse and harder to track.
"The president has fallen back on the terrorist connection with respect to Iraq as the last possible justification that's capable of mobilizing support on a national basis to continue our presence in Iraq," said Beers.
Yet to do that, the president has had to twist the NIEs to make it seem that "victory" in Iraq remains the crucial piece of the puzzle, rather than its adjunct.
Even worse, however, is that, according to Beers, the president isn't playing politics in doing that. He truly believes - or rather, President Bush is so wedded to his view of Iraq that he either isn't paying attention to the intelligence findings, or only hearing what he wants to hear.
"I think we have a president who very much sees this as his life mission," said Beers, "who very much wants to be successful at it and very much is looking for things that allow him to see the possibility of success."
There's another phrase for that: wishful thinking. And wishful thinking has no place in the Oval Office of a president at war.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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