Any decline in violence in Iraq is welcome. But the relative quiet that reigns in Baghdad does not mean that the troop surge has been successful. This elementary point–which even some antiwar Democrats hesitate to make–now routinely elicits accusations of “defeatism” and worse from Republicans and their water carriers in the media. Yet it is the war party’s triumphalism that deserves to be met with outrage. Did they think no one would notice that they have rewritten the script? The surge was supposed to improve security as a means to an end; the end was to find a political solution for Iraq’s internal conflicts. In President Bush’s own words, “Victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world–a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties and answers to its people.” Does that sound like today’s Iraq? The country is no closer to having a workable government or to reconciliation among hostile parties than it was when the surge began. A poll released in September showed 70 percent of Iraqis saying the surge has “hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development,” and no political advances have followed the ebb in violence since then. One of the surge’s tactics was to empower local militias, and as a consequence Iraqis may feel safer in their neighborhoods but they are further from having a central government with the ability to maintain law and order. The Shiite-led government, for its part, seems no more inclined to compromise on key issues than it was eight months ago.

The vaunted decline in violence must also be put in perspective. There are still more than 575 attacks a week, well more than 2,000 a month. The number of attacks has declined only to early 2006 levels, one of the deadliest years of the war. Moreover, the drop cannot necessarily be attributed to the US military presence. As American officials on the ground have admitted, the move by Sunni groups to rein in Al Qaeda has made a huge difference. So has the decision by Muqtada al-Sadr to order his militia to stand down. Iran is also said to have used its influence to curb the violence by certain Shiite militias. They all had their reasons, unrelated to the American strategy, for trying to quell the violence.

There is also an ugly flip side to the recent calm, which is that the surge was preceded and accompanied by a surge in sectarian cleansing. Thus any drop-off in violence reflects the fact that much of the ethnic cleansing that was part of that violence has already taken place–entire neighborhoods in Baghdad, for example, have been emptied of their Sunni residents. In this sense the worst of the civil war may be over–and it took place on America’s watch. Another possible explanation of the lull is that the Iraqi population has been decimated, with hundreds of thousands of war deaths and massive refugee flight, 26,000 detained by US forces and thousands more languishing in Iraqi prisons.

With antiwar sentiment at home widespread but not deep, the outcome of the domestic debate on Iraq depends in large part on the perception of success or failure: public opinion is liable to swing in favor of staying in Iraq if people think the war is going well. This poses a challenge–and opportunity–for the peace movement, which Tom Hayden outlines on page 11. Without question, it is important to counter GOP propaganda about the surge’s “success.” But to build a stronger opposition movement, the emphasis must remain on what is fundamentally wrong–not just what is going wrong now–with the war and occupation.