Leading article: Out of the 'bubble' with a new mood of contrition

George Bush's prime-time address from the Oval Office on Sunday and his press conference yesterday were not only intended to draw the line under his most miserable year in office. They were also the climax of an intense campaign by the White House to win back public support for the Iraq war. In the past three weeks, the President has delivered no fewer than five major speeches in a bid to convince Americans that he has a strategy for "victory" that will allow him to bring the troops home.

In other circumstances, the strategy might be counted a success. Last week's elections in Iraq went better than expected. In his speeches, Mr Bush showed signs of breaking out of the "bubble" - the tight cocoon of protective aides, carefully chosen audiences and selective reading that have severed this President from reality.

To a certain extent, a "new" Bush has been on display. True, this Bush is still utterly convinced of the rightness of his cause. But at last the Iraq he describes bears some resemblance to the Iraq that Americans read about every day and see on their television screens every evening: the Iraq where 2,150 US troops and perhaps 30,000 Iraqis have died since March 2003, where dire mistakes and misjudgements have been made, where presidential decisions, in Mr Bush's words, have "led to terrible loss". In short, he has of late shown a measure of humility, even contrition - qualities not normally associated with him. He has been rewarded with a modest rise in his approval ratings.

But that improvement could be quickly undone. Hardly had the White House started to trumpet the election success than The New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency - by law limited to foreign intelligence gathering - has been eavesdropping on US citizens at home without the required court warrants.

Mr Bush said yesterday that the practice was vital for American security, and that its leak was "shameful" in a time of war. But it comes amid strong complaints that the anti-terrorist Patriot Act is unacceptably harming civil liberties, and the continuing controversy over "renditions" and alleged CIA prisons operating beyond the reach of any national or international law. The NSA operations have only hardened the sense that this presidency is ready to trample on the law and the constitution to expand the power of the executive branch.

For Americans, domestic snooping by an intelligence agency brings back memories of the "dirty tricks" and "enemies lists" of Richard Nixon's day. Mr Bush insists that his overriding duty is to protect the country from a stealthy, vicious and single-minded foe, by whatever means are necessary. Moreover, he adds, the NSA has acted only in cases where suspicion of terrorism leads back into the US. But how do we know?

Ultimately, Iraq holds the key to everything. If last week's elections do bring a real decline in the insurgency and some kind of political settlement, then Mr Bush will be able to make real progress in extricating America from this adventure of his own making in time for the mid-term elections next November. In that case, the controversies over NSA surveillance and the Patriot Act may subside.

It is just as possible, however, that the insurgency will become more intractable, while Iraq's ethnic and tribal divisions deepen to the point of civil war. In that case, the clamour for speedy withdrawal will grow. And even this Republican Congress will probably move decisively to rein in a presidency whose determination to increase its power is matched only by its failure to deliver the goods. If that happens, then the wretched year of 2005 will be followed by more of the same - or worse - in 2006.

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