Not many years ago, I used to say that our troops were some of the best peacekeepers in the world. Having learned their lessons in Northern Ireland, their performance in Bosnia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone - and in leading the establishment of the peace-keeping force in Kabul - was exemplary.
The Department for International Development, of which I was Secretary of State, provided some funding, and the troops worked in ways that enabled them to get to know the local people. They helped with emergency repairs, set up football clubs, and got involved in other activities. The secret of the troops' success was that they treated local people with respect. And so - despite all the deceit on the road to war in Iraq - it was easy to believe the claims that life was better in Basra than Baghdad partly because our troops knew how to behave.
We can no longer be under that illusion. The video footage that came to light last week showing the beatings of young men by British troops - and the decision of the people of Basra to refuse all contact with British forces - suggests that all is not as we were led to believe. We can no longer feel the same pride in the performance of our armed forces. And their loss of reputation makes them more vulnerable in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On top of what we have just learnt about British military conduct, we have seen more despicable photographs of the mistreatment by the American military of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Quite apart from anything else, they are a reminder that at no time since the scandal emerged in 2004 has there been a proper inquiry into it, and that nobody in a position of authority has been held to account.
All this in a week when a UN report called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and in which our courts told the Government that it should make representations on behalf of British residents held in Guantanamo Bay.
The US defence of Guantanamo is that prisoners there are war criminals who will be held for as long as the conflict lasts. But just as this argument was being promulgated, a senior British police officer told us that the war on terror was likely to last for as long as 50 years. Against this backdrop, Labour MPs voted in overwhelming numbers for a system of creeping compulsion in the introduction of ID cards and for the insidious new criminal offence of "glorifying terrorism".
I could weep for the accumulating errors that are being made, and for the violence and bloodshed that are likely to continue to spread across the world for many decades to come.
And it gets worse. The prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been thrown away, and the man who is almost certain to become Israel's next prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has made clear that he will implement his predecessor Ariel Sharon's plan to contain the Palestinian population in a series of Bantustans on just 15 per cent of the land of historical Palestine.
This must mean the conflict will continue into the indefinite future. No Palestinian leadership could ever accept such a settlement together with the loss of East Jerusalem. The politics of the Middle East will remain poisoned, the anger of the Muslim world undiminished.
The International Crisis Group last week published a study of the insurgency in Iraq, and concluded that it was becoming better organised, less fragmented and more conscious of the need not to alienate Iraqi opinion. It is increasingly confident it can win. And educated Iraqi families who survived the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War, sanctions, and the evils of the Saddam Hussein regime are leaving in droves because the present situation is unbearable. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent, and the country has become anarchic, with the likely prospect of an endless war paralleling the situation in Colombia. The decision to deploy British troops to one of the most dangerous areas of the country risks increasing loss of our soldiers' lives, in a hopeless, endless war.
British foreign policy is a major part of the problem. At a time when we desperately need international co-operation to deal with the problems of global warming, poverty, population growth and loss of environmental resources, we have growing bitter division, an undermining of the UN, and of international law. People frequently compare the errors of Iraq to the Suez adventure. I'm afraid it is much more serious than that, and on top of this we have the prospect of an attack on Iran to prevent its developing nuclear capacity.
Meanwhile, our constitutional structures are malfunctioning. Deceiving Parliament was always seen as the unforgivable crime in our constitutional arrangements. But there has been no holding of the Prime Minister to account for his deceit over Iraq, and the main opposition party is busy repairing its relationship with the Bush administration. The traditional Labour Party is in despair, with membership collapsing and the recent by-election defeat a sign of things to come. The problem is that no solution is in sight and therefore the people are increasingly contemptuous of the political establishment.
It will get worse before it gets better. There will be no peace until a future American administration understands the trouble they are in and the need for a just settlement in the Middle East. And in the UK, we will not get what we need unless we achieve a hung parliament. This could lead to a change in the electoral system to halt the concentration of unaccountable and incompetent policy-making in No 10. These are gloomy times and we need to face up to just how bad they are in order to begin to build the movements that will start to put things right.
Clare Short was Secretary of State for International Development from 1997 to 2003
© 2006 The Independent