Michael Gerson

The season now ending with school bells and the return of Congress was supposed to be the "Iraq Summer." A coalition of antiwar groups promised 10 weeks of phone banks, billboards, petitions and protests targeted at 40 Republican members of Congress who support the war. "It's going to be like laying asphalt in August -- hot," boasted one organizer.

By this standard, August has been remarkably mild. It brings to mind a couplet by the poet Richard Wilbur: "What is the opposite of riot? It's lots of people keeping quiet."

During their summer vacation, Americans discovered that Gen. David Petraeus doesn't take one. And his energy and urgency have shifted the Iraq debate in some fundamental ways.

A few months ago, it was the received wisdom that Iraq was in the midst of a rapidly escalating civil war. That claim is no longer plausible.

While the level of violence is still unacceptably high, the surge has disrupted the cycle of escalation and proved that progress is possible. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno's briefing this month was an antidote to pessimism. "Total attacks," he said, "are at their lowest levels since August of 2006." Some of the most violent and lawless regions of Iraq, such as Anbar and Diyala, have been stabilized with the cooperation of local Sunni leaders who have turned against al-Qaeda thuggery. Insurgents are being pushed out of population centers and then targeted in further operations. Sectarian murders in Baghdad have gone down by more than 50 percent in a few months, reaching their lowest levels since the Samarra mosque bombing. And new sectarian provocations -- such as the al-Qaeda bombings in Nineveh -- have not resulted in the usual spiral of revenge murders.

With the surge fully in place only as of last month, the suddenness of these results is startling. Skeptical military experts have returned from Iraq with praise for the Petraeus strategy. And supporters of the war have been left to wonder: What if these approaches had been employed a year earlier?

As the summer began, it seemed that Republicans in Congress were on the verge of mass defections over the president's conduct of the war and ready to embrace Democratic timetables for withdrawal. While Sen. John Warner's recent call for symbolic troop reductions by Christmas didn't help the administration's case, it is now mainly Democrats who are recalibrating their message.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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