The Abu Ghraib prison scandal has smashed into American's Mideast policy with the force of a car bomb.
This scandal can't be dismissed as the work of a few rotten apples. Nor will the investigations being mounted by the Pentagon be sufficient to defuse it. The failure at Abu Ghraib is part of a greater failure to foresee the consequences of an Iraq war, which have made the war on terrorism harder.
Even before the scandal hit the airwaves, the war in Iraq was undercutting the struggle against radical Islamists. The Iraq war siphoned money and resources from homeland security, such as protection for natural terrorist targets like railroads, ports and chemical plants.
And as Richard Clarke, the president's former antiterrorism czar, told a Philadelphia audience last week: "The Iraq war took resources away from the fight against al-Qaida, which was able to survive and morph into a hydra-headed monster."
Before the war, there were no known al-Qaida agents under Saddam's control, but now hundreds of jihadis have infiltrated Iraq to fight U.S. forces. Radical Islam, which was repressed under Saddam, has grown roots inside Iraq.
Al-Qaida offshoots have spread around the globe, setting off bombs in Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, Riyadh and Madrid, and recently have been thwarted from setting off huge bombs in Manila, London, Amman and, again, Riyadh.
The fight against jihadis would have been a long struggle even without the Iraq war. But the administration's bungling of postwar planning has made the struggle far more difficult.
Arab satellite channels beam constant scenes of Iraq chaos, such as civilian casualties in Fallujah. Arab TV shots of Iraq are inevitably paired with shots of Israeli military incursions into Gaza.
Last week, a sobering article appeared in the New York Times about the startling increase of militant Muslim groups in Europe. It contained this quote from a European antiterrorism official: "Iraq dramatically strengthened their recruitment efforts." Some European mosques now display photos of American soldiers fighting in Iraq alongside photos of bombed-out Iraqi neighborhoods. No doubt those mosque galleries have now added the notorious snapshots from Abu Ghraib.
I spoke about Abu Ghraib to Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Lebanese daily As-Safir and a strong supporter of democratic reform in the Middle East. He feared that the administration had still "failed to realize the enormity of the impact (of Abu Ghraib) on the Mideast region."
The administration now claims that the goal of the Iraq war was to build Iraq into a democracy that would be a model for the region. It has billed the war on terror as a war of ideas, in which democracy must triumph over the nihilism of jihadis.
But the Abu Ghraib scandal, says Melhem, feeds the suspicions of every Arab who believes America has dark designs on the region, and makes a mockery of talk about democracy.
The impact might not be quite so stunning if America's Arab allies weren't already reeling from President Bush's endorsement of Israel's right to retain many West Bank settlements. Or if the Abu Ghraib photos had not shown a kind of sexual humiliation that is particularly shameful in Arab culture.
Melhem readily debunks any facile comparison with Saddam's prison tortures. But he adds that "Arab regimes don't claim they are democracies (while) Americans are preaching these moral values. When I try to say that Americans are shocked because they believe their country is one of laws, nobody at home wants to hear this."
Now, U.S. officials must try to counter the wave of Arab anger. Condoleezza Rice has hit the Arab airwaves. Perhaps a more credible spokesman would be the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abuzaid, who speaks Arabic. Perhaps he could persuade Arabs that America was committed to a transparent investigation.
But Melhem fears the war for Arab hearts and minds has already been lost. Let's hope he's wrong.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer..