Wartime learning curve

President Bush's series of Iraq speeches, culminating in Sunday's TV address, were grouped around the US strategy for victory. But because Mr. Bush candidly admitted mistakes in conducting the war, they could be dubbed the "what I've learned" speeches.

His acknowledgment of setbacks in Iraq is significant. Not because it presents a "gotcha" moment for the media or his opponents, but because it indicates a willingness to make adjustments.

That's vitally important for a commander in chief, because no two wars are alike. For pointers, Bush can look to previous wars, but technology, politics, and novel tactics of the enemy require each conflict to be treated uniquely.

The president has taken responsibility for flawed intelligence going into Iraq, and admitted to problems in training Iraqi troops, postwar reconstruction, and initial US plans for an Iraqi government. In each case, Bush said, the US adjusted.

Many factors have contributed to this president's wartime learning curve: facts on the ground; public opinion; the media; the courts; and, lately, a more vigorous Congress which is awakening to its role as a check on executive wartime power, especially concerning human rights and civil liberties.

Recently, Congress pressured the White House to wisely accept a ban on "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of detainees. It's pushing for information on CIA detention centers overseas. And the Senate is delaying renewal of the Patriot Act so lawmakers can negotiate over civil liberties protections for Americans.

The latest, serious course correction could come over the issue of government spying on Americans without a court's permission. Last week, The New York Times reported that the president has approved warrantless surveillance of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans' phone and e-mail communications with suspected terrorists outside the US.

That appears to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, though the administration argues the president has the authority to avoid a warrant through his constitutional powers as commander in chief and a post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing him to wage war on Al Qaeda. The White House repeatedly briefed congressional leaders on the program, which helped uncover a plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge.

The most important question here is whether the surveillance violates the law, especially considering that the Act can accommodate urgent, sensitive surveillance (the president says the administration needs the program in order to act quickly). Congress is right to look into the issue and should also examine its own involvement. While Bush's motivation to protect Americans can't be doubted, neither should government prosecute a war outside the law. If adjustments need to be made, they should be made through new laws, such as the Patriot Act. It's rule of law that protects society.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), put it well when he said Sunday, "Even in a time of war, you have to follow the process, because that's what a democracy is all about."

One valid lesson from lawmakers is that Bush should be more open when interpreting the Constitution in novel ways during a time of war.

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