Osama bin Laden himself couldn't have scripted a worse public relations disaster for the United States.
It was a handful of U.S. troops themselves that delivered this bombshell: graphic and inexcusable photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by their U.S. captors in one of Saddam's old chamber of horrors. The photos blew across the Arab world like the car bomb from hell.
Now Americans are seen not only as an occupying force, but also as torturers. Given the gender sensibilities in the Islamic world, it was especially inflammatory that some of the American soldiers participating in the humiliation of the naked Iraqi men were women.
The America-haters around the world, including those in America, are not about to make any distinctions between U.S. military values and Saddam Hussein's values. Or to note that U.S. abuse of Iraqis is the exception, and in Saddam's regime it was the rule. This is why U.S. prestige has been so badly damaged. Critics will say there's no difference between the United States and its enemies.
But just because those who hate America can't - or refuse to - see a difference between official U.S. military policy and those of despots such as Saddam and Yasser Arafat doesn't mean those differences don't exist.
A small group of rotten apples - acting in clear violation of U.S. military law - are not representative of the vast majority of American troops putting their lives on the line to make sure the government-sponsored tortures, rapes and mass murders that went on under Saddam will never happen again in Iraq.
The abuse of Iraqi prisoners is unconscionable, but the perception that it's widespread and condoned by official U.S. policy also is unconscionable, because it's so wide of the truth. It was, after all, an outraged U.S. soldier, or soldiers, who blew the whistle on the abusers.
In most of the Arab world, it would be the whistle-blowers who'd be punished - perhaps even made to pay with their lives. Don't forget the crazed extremists we're dealing with in Iraq and elsewhere in the Mideast.
They are anti-American, anti-freedom fanatics who can work themselves into an Islamic lather over a handful of rogue American troops unlawfully mistreating Iraqi prisoners in one prison camp, while not raising one word of concern when insurgents blow up and kill American civilians and drag their charred bodies through the streets while Iraqi mobs dance and cheer.
This is not civilized behavior. It's senseless and barbaric. And in the short term, there's probably not anything the U.S.-led coalition can do to change the "ugly-American" perception that the prisoner abuse has caused.
In the longer term, however, we just have to hope that a more balanced perspective will eventually evolve as the world sees how the U.S. military exposes and punishes the torturers and wrongdoers in its midst.