White House Retreats on Divisive Issues President Bush is defying both Congress and public opinion by sending more troops to Iraq. But the White House is yielding on other issues — submitting its domestic spying program to court review and offering concessions on detainee rights.

White House Retreats on Divisive Issues

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Back in Washington 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. On other key national security issues, however, there are growing signs of a White House in retreat.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: 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, says there's an obvious pattern here.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (Council on Foreign Relations): There's no question the administration knows it can't behave, in its last two years, the way it did in its first six.

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

Mr. GELB: And 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.

KELLY: 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.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Former member National Security Council): We've seen a transformation in President Bush in the last couple of weeks that I think is really remarkable. 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.

KELLY: 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.

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

KELLY: And what President Bush appears to be focused on is Iraq. His push for a troop increase is at odds with 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 rather is choosing its battles.

Ms. ELLEN LAIPSON (Former official, National Intelligence Council): I still think they believe in strong executive power 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.

KELLY: And indeed on Capitol Hill yesterday, the president's attorney general was not sounding particularly chastened. He'd been summoned to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As expected, he was greeted with lots of questions about the shift on the administrations' controversial domestic eavesdropping program. Alberto Gonzales insisted the change has nothing to do with politics or pending legal challenges.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): This wasn't motivated by the litigation. We began this process well in advance of the disclosure of the program, and thus, well in advance of the litigation.

KELLY: 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 e-mails without a warrant, he has always been in compliance with U.S. law.

Mr. GONZALES: 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 in a limited basis during a time of war.

KELLY: 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 to the first Democratic Congress in more than a decade.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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