Misguided from the start, the war in Iraq is spiraling out of control. Any legitimacy the occupying forces may ever have possessed has been destroyed, and there are signs that Iraqi insurgents are coming together to mount a movement of resistance that could render the country ungovernable. With even more damning images likely to find their way into the public realm in the near future, the United States is facing an historic defeat in Iraq - a blow to American power more damaging than it suffered in Vietnam, and far larger in its global implications.
The inescapable implication of currently available evidence is that the use of torture by US forces was not an aberration, but a practice sanctioned at the highest levels. Undoubtedly there were serious breaches of discipline, and the blank failure to understand that they had done anything wrong displayed by some of the abusers does not speak well for the levels of training of sections of the US military.
Abuse on the scale suggested by the Red Cross report cannot be accounted for by any mere lapse in discipline or the trailer-park mentality of some American recruits. It was inherent in the American approach to the war. American military intervention in Iraq was based on neo-conservative fantasies about US forces being greeted as liberators. In fact, as could be foreseen at the time, it has embroiled these forces in a brutal and hopeless war against the Iraqi people. From being regarded as passive recipients of American goodwill, they are now viewed as virtually subhuman. If, as seems clear, British forces are innocent of anything resembling the systemic abuse that appears to have been practiced by the Americans, one reason is that they do not share these attitudes.
The resistance mounted by the Iraqi insurgents can be compared to the anti-colonial liberation struggles of the 1950s, but the closest parallels with the intractable conflict now under way are found in Chechnya, which remains a zone of anarchy and terror despite the ruthless deployment of Russian firepower and the systematic use of torture for more than a decade. It was the prospect of an intractable guerrilla conflict that led many soldiers in the Pentagon to express deep reservations regarding the war. When the civilian leadership launched the invasion of Iraq, US forces were plunged into a type of conflict for which they are supremely ill equipped.
In the wake of Vietnam and Somalia, American military doctrine has been based on "force protection" and "shock and awe". In practice, these strategies mean killing anyone who appears to pose any threat to US forces and overcoming the enemy through the use of overwhelming firepower. Effective in the early stages of the war when the enemy was Saddam and his regime, they are deeply counter-productive when, as in Iraq today, the enemy comprises much of the population. As Douglas Hurd has observed, filling the hospitals and mortuaries is not the best way to win hearts and minds. The effect has been to make the conflict more savage. It is in circumstances such as these that torture becomes routine. In Iraq over the past year, as in Chechnya, and before that in Algeria where the French fought a similar dirty war, anyone could end up a victim of torture.
In subjecting randomly selected Iraqis to abuse, American forces are following a well-trodden path, but the type of torture that has been practiced has some distinctive features. Unlike the Russians or the French, who inflicted extremes of physical pain as well, US forces in Iraq appear to be relying mainly on techniques that focus on the application of intense psychological pressure. In order to soften up detainees they have swept up from the streets, they have used disorientation, sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation. These are all forms of abuse that would damage any human being, but leading naked Iraqi males around on dog leads and covering their heads with women's underwear look like techniques designed specifically in order to attack the prisoners' identity and values. The result is that an indelible image of American depravity has been imprinted on the entire Islamic world.
It remains unclear how these techniques came to be used in Abu Ghraib prison. What is evident is that from the start of the war on terror the Bush administration has flouted or circumvented international law on the treatment of detainees. It unilaterally declared members of terrorist organizations to be illegal combatants who are not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. The detainees held at Guantanamo Bay fall into this category, and so apparently did the Taliban and al-Qa'ida suspects who were captured in Afghanistan. Being beyond the reach of international law, they were liable to torture.
In Iraq, the Bush administration evaded international law by a different route. They outsourced security duties at Abu Ghraib and other American detention facilities to private contractors not covered by military law and not regulated by the Geneva Convention. In effect, the Bush administration deliberately created a lawless environment in which abuse could be practiced with impunity.
Some of the lawmakers who watched video stills of the sexual abuse of Iraqi women by US personnel in a closed session on Capitol Hill in Washington last week have described the behavior they witnessed as un-American. Maybe so, but it was made possible by policies emanating from the highest levels of American leadership. The torture of Iraqis by US personnel is an application of the Bush administration's strategy in the war on terror.
Tossing aside international law and the norms of civilized behavior in this way is self-defeating. Not so long ago, the clash of civilizations was just a crass and erroneous theory, but after the recent revelations it is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In toppling Saddam, the Americans destroyed an essentially Western regime, not unlike the Stalinist Soviet Union in its militant secularism. In doing so, they empowered radical Islam as the single most important political force in the country.
The immediate beneficiary of the torture revelations is likely to be Iran - a fact that seems to have been grasped by Ahmed Chalabi (the Iraqi émigré that the neo-conservatives believed would take the country to American-style democracy), who appears to be forging links with the Iranian regime. At a global level, the principal beneficiary is al-Qa'ida, which is now a more serious threat than it has ever been.
The Bush administration's self-defeating approach to terrorism is symptomatic of a dangerous unrealism running right through its thinking. For Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defense Secretary, and other neo-conservatives, the solution to terrorism was to "modernize" the Middle East. For them, that meant overthrowing many, if not most, of the area's regimes and replacing them with secular liberal democracies. They appear not to have noticed that the region's secular regimes were authoritarian states such as Syria and Iraq. In the Middle East today, as in Algeria in the past, democracy means Islamist rule.
In part, the attack on Iraq was simply another exercise in the type of neo-Wilsonian fantasy that is a recurring feature of US foreign policy, but it was also an exercise in realpolitik - and a resource war. A key part of the rationale for the invasion was to enable the US to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, which had come to be seen as complicit with terror and inherently unstable.
If it was to pull out from Saudi Arabia, the US needed another source of oil. Only Iraq has it in sufficient quantities - hence the drive for regime change. In this Dr Strangelove-like vision, once Saddam had been removed and Iraq remodeled as a Western-style democracy, the oil would start flowing. The war would be self-financing, and the world economy would move smoothly into the sunlit uplands.
Things have not turned out quite like that. Oil prices have risen, not fallen, and they could easily rise further. Partly this is a result of the increasingly desperate security situation in Iraq. The Americans did more than overthrow Saddam's despotic regime; they also destroyed the Iraqi state, with the result that the country is now in a condition of semi-anarchy.
Given the ill-judged attack by US forces on the Shia holy city of Najaf and the likelihood that the beheading of Nicholas Berg by Islamist militants will be followed by more such atrocities, the level of violence in the country will almost certainly escalate. In that case, Iraq will be the scene of a mass exodus. International organizations and Western oil companies will leave and any prospect of rebuilding the country will be lost. Where will that leave Iraq - and its oil?
The exodus will not be confined to Iraq. Western companies are already leaving Saudi Arabia, the producer of last resort in the global oil market. Emboldened by the worsening situation in Iraq, forces linked to al-Qa'ida have intensified their attacks on Saudi targets. Economists may say that the world need not fear another oil shock, but they have forgotten the geo-political realities. Saudi oil is still hugely important, and any sign of increased instability in the country is immediately reflected in the oil price. The impact of a major upheaval in the kingdom would be incalculable.
The US cannot afford an ongoing war in Iraq, but the price of a quick exit will be high. Even so, it looks clear that that is exactly what is about to happen. After the torture revelations, "staying the course" is no longer feasible. This is not because the American public has reacted with massive revulsion to evidence of the systematic abuse of Iraqis - as has been the case in Britain and other European countries. Rather, Iraq and its people are now viewed with a mix of bafflement and hatred, and a mood of despair about the war has set in. Most Americans want out - and soon. Locked in internal dispute, the Democrats have not so far been able to grasp the nettle. The pressure on President Bush to announce that America has completed its mission with the handover of sovereignty may well prove overwhelming.
If he decides to cut and run, Bush may yet survive the débâcle in Iraq. No such prospect beckons for Tony Blair. It was his brand of messianic liberalism that dragged Britain into the war. For the Prime Minister, going to war in Iraq offered an intoxicating feeling of rectitude combined with the reassuring sense of being on the side of the big battalions. But American invincibility was a neo-conservative myth, and the notion that Blair can survive the hideous fiasco that is unfolding in Iraq is as delusional as the thinking that led to the war in the first place. It cannot be long before he is irresistibly prompted to seek new avenues for his messianic ambitions.
In the US, American withdrawal will be represented as a reward for a job well done. The rest of the world will recognize it as a humiliating defeat, and it is here that the analogy of Vietnam is inadequate. The Iraq war has been lost far more quickly than that in South-east Asia, and the impact on the world is potentially much greater. Whereas Vietnam had little economic significance, Iraq is pivotal in the world economy. No dominoes fell with the fall of Saigon, but some pretty weighty ones could be shaken as the American tanks rumble out of Baghdad.
The full implications of such a blow to American power cannot be foreseen. One consequence is clear enough, however. The world has seen the last of liberal imperialism. It died on the killing fields of Iraq. It is no consolation to the people of that country, but at least their sufferings have demonstrated the cruel folly of waging war in order to fight a liberal crusade.
John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the LSE. His book 'Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern' is published in paperback by Faber & Faber
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd