The Iraq War has brought out the worst in a lot of people. Many who opposed it from the start have been beating their chests in triumph about how badly things have gone, while hunting for bad news wherever they can find it, which isn’t very hard. Many who supported the war have been searching for any positive trend that would allow them to claim that the tide is turning. This second group assumes that history will redeem them, not realizing that even if Iraq were brought gradually to rights, and the clerical regime in Iran were to suffer severe setbacks, it would still be hard to justify the loss of tens of thousands of lives merely for the sake of strategic positioning.

Of course, had the occupation been planned with the same meticulousness as the initial invasion, the loss of life might have been far less severe, and thus the war might have been justified with hindsight. That didn’t happen, though. Those like myself who argued for regime change are stuck with the facts as they are, not as we would like them to be.

In previous wars, presidents have reached down into the bureaucracy to find the most competent generals. Lincoln was famous for discarding generals until he got the right one, Ulysses S. Grant. John Pershing was promoted above other officers to command troops in World War I. George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower were also plucked from the ranks to command troops in World War II. But George W. Bush and his secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, settled for a barely competent general, Ricardo Sanchez, for the absolutely crucial job of getting the military occupation of Iraq off to a good start. When Sanchez failed, they then settled for a merely ordinary man, George Casey, under whom the situation continued to deteriorate. If you are whom you appoint, Sanchez and Casey speak volumes about the Bush administration. It took nearly four years of war for the Bush administration to choose the kind of general that previous presidents would have been hunting for—and demanding—from the very beginning: David Petraeus.

Indeed, to say that the occupation was doomed from the start, regardless of who was chosen to lead it, is pure determinism, since it assumes that individual men have no ability to affect outcomes. I have met and talked with both Casey and Petraeus, and the difference between them is vast. Casey is a modest, by-the-book general who evinces little imagination. Petraeus is both an innovative general and an outside-the-box intellectual, who draws on a lifetime of deep and varied reading.

The idea that General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are front men for the administration is ludicrous. Until he took the job as overall ground commander in Iraq, Petraeus was a favorite of liberal journalists: the Princeton man who enjoyed the company of the media and intellectuals, so much so that he was vaguely distrusted by other general officers who envied the good ink he received. As for Crocker, he is a hard-core Arabist, a professional species that I once wrote a book about: He is the least likely creature on earth to buy into neoconservative ideas about the Middle East. Neither of these men are identified with the decision to go to war. If I had to bet, I’d say that Crocker especially would have been against it, like his other Arabist colleagues. Thus, these men have no personal stake in proving the president right. They and their staffs are much more likely to provide a balanced analysis of the reality in Iraq than senators and congressmen looking over their shoulders at opinion polls and future elections. As Petraeus said, “I wrote this testimony myself,” meaning, the White House had nothing to do with it. Watching them brief Congress Monday, I came away convinced that they made a better impression on the public than anyone else in the room.

As for the substance of Petraeus’s report, you don’t have to believe that victory is around the corner to believe that our third general to run the occupation has made demonstrable progress where the previous two failed. The tactical situation on the ground is moving forward for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad in the spring of 2003. The question is: How much progress has been made, and what does it mean, if anything?

Petraeus believes it means a lot. He told Congress that the goals of the troop surge are “in large measure being met.” He reported that violent incidents in Iraq have declined in the past eight of 12 months; that overall civilian deaths in Iraq are down 45 percent since last December, and down 80 percent in Baghdad; and that while last December saw 1,350 violent incidents per month in Anbar province, by August the number was down to 200. He called these statistics “quite significant.” He provided a concise narrative, buttressed by charts, of the disruption of networks of al-Qaeda in Iraq, of Shia extremist groups, and of other Iranian-supported terror cells. He chronicled the spread of the Anbar tribal movement opposed to al-Qaeda to other provinces and spoke of how the United States military has worked many angles to facilitate this.

This progress, he believes, suggests that by next summer the U.S. military can draw down to the pre-surge level of 130,000 troops without negative consequences. Beyond next summer, he refused to speculate.

Probably the two most interesting statements in Petraeus’s report will get little coverage. First, that the data analysis he used to brief Congress was found by two intelligence agencies to be the best available on the Iraq war, and that reenlistment rates of troops in Iraq are above average: 130 percent among younger enlistees and 115 percent among those in mid-career. Those statistics constitute telling evidence that the troops themselves continue to find great meaning in their work, suggesting that they certainly don’t believe the cause is lost.

Of course, there is a basic contradiction in the analyses of Petraeus and Crocker. If Iraq has made all the progress they show in their charts and yet would fall apart if we left, then how relevant is that progress in the first place? The editorial writers at The New York Times remind us that military progress is meaningless without political progress. By that logic, since there has been no tangible national reconciliation at the top levels of government in Baghdad, there has been no meaningful progress at all. But that may be too neat an equation. If the surge has helped fortify political progress on the ground at the tribal level in Anbar and other regions of the country—by solidifying the Sunni alliance against al-Qaeda—then perhaps we should not rush toward the exit gates. Just because we can’t engineer change at the top does not mean that we can’t engineer change at the bottom in a way that will gradually and organically affect the top. As Crocker said, “The current course is hard; the alternatives are far worse.” Indeed, as Petraeus indicated, a rapid withdrawal would unleash centrifugal forces in Iraq that would tear the country further apart, whereas a slow and gradual withdrawal over time will improve the situation.

Alas, a series of dictators, culminating in Saddam Hussein, built a state out of a multiconfessional and multiethnic hodgepodge. Because that hodgepodge was so unwieldy—a Frankenstein monster of a polity—the force required to control it was, by necessity, tyrannical in the extreme. With that extreme tyranny now dismantled, rebuilding the Iraqi state must begin from scratch. It may be no accident that the progress we have seen is at the bottom, since that might be the only place where such progress can even begin to take hold.

Bottom line: I suspect we will be stuck in Iraq with tens of thousands of troops for years to come. The results we obtain may be meager, but they’ll still be better than if we suddenly withdrew.

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