White House Retreats on Divisive Issues

In Washington, D.C., the debate continues over President Bush's new strategy for Iraq. The president is defying both Congress and American public opinion with his plan to send more than 21,000 additional troops to Iraq. But on other key national security issues, there are growing signs of a White House in retreat.

The latest sign came this week with the announcement that the Bush administration will submit its domestic spying program to court review. That's a big reversal.

Then there are the recently abandoned efforts to get John Bolton confirmed as permanent ambassador to the United Nations. And perhaps most notable, major concessions from the president on the rights accorded to detainees.

Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sees an obvious pattern:

"There's no question, the administration knows it can't behave in its last two years, the way it did in its first six," Gelb said.

Gelb pointed to the shift in Congress as the single biggest factor at work. With Democrats in control and promising tough hearings and investigations, Gelb argued that President Bush has found himself in a position of weakness.

"He realizes he can face either two last, very brutal years of combat with Congress, the press and the American public — or begin to make some adjustments that allow him to go out with some more grace and good sense," Gelb said.

Bruce Riedel, who served on President Bush's National Security Council from 2000 to 2002, agrees with this assessment. He sees a president chastened by events both at home — the November elections — and abroad.

"We've seen a transformation in President Bush in the last couple weeks that I think is really remarkable," Riedel said. "I mean, we have a president now who admits that the war in Iraq was failing. We'd never heard that before. We have a president who says that any mistakes are his responsibility, and that he should be held accountable for them."

Riedel also served in the Clinton White House, and under the first President Bush. And he says such a transformation isn't unusual at this stage in a presidency.

"I've served in two White Houses in the last two years of the administration," he said. "And lame ducks have to pick their fights very, very carefully. And when they thinking about their legacy, it really focuses the mind on what it is that you most want to accomplish and be remembered for."

President Bush appears to be focused on Iraq. His push for a troop increase is at odds with the advice of the bipartisan Iraq Survey Group, congressional leaders and some of his own military commanders.

Ellen Laipson, former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, finds in this persuasive evidence of an administration that has not changed its fundamental convictions, but is choosing its battles.

"I still think they believe in strong executive power," Laipson said. "And they still believe that we are living in times that are the virtual equivalent of a national emergency. So I guess I don't see them as truly chastened. I don't see them as saying, 'we were wrong, and we have to think about these issues in a fundamentally different way.' I do not think that's what's occurred."

And indeed, on Capitol Hill Thursday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was not sounding particularly chastened. He was summoned to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee, and greeted with lots of questions about the shift on the administration's controversial domestic eavesdropping program.

Gonzales insisted the change has nothing to do with politics, or pending legal challenges.

"This wasn't motivated by the litigation," he said. "We began this process well in advance of the disclosure of the program. And thus well in advance of the litigation."

Nor did Gonzales budge on the legality of the program. Gonzales argued that in the five years since President Bush first ordered the surveillance of Americans' phone calls and emails without a warrant, he has always been in compliance with U.S. law.

"There was a firm belief — and that belief continues today — that he does have the authority under the constitution to engage in electronic surveillance of the enemy, on a limited basis, during a time of war," Gonzales said.

There was emphasis on that phrase: "During a time of war." But the nation's commander-in-chief is now facing a Congress that's prepared to challenge his national security policies.

He'll have to make a compelling case for them next week, when he delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday to the first Democratic Congress in more than a decade.

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