Posted: May 07, 2004 12:00 AM

 Today's picture on the front page of the newspaper shows a naked Iraqi prisoner on the floor. A leash is tied around his neck. Holding the leash is an American soldier.

 This is a disaster.

 These photographs are a dagger in the heart of our hopes for Iraq and the wider Middle East. It isn't yet clear whether the damage is reversible, but first let's be clear about what the damage is.

 Many have been at pains to object that what we have so far seen does not amount to torture. True. This is not pulling out fingernails. And yet, of all things to do to Arab men, to humiliate them sexually, particularly before female soldiers, is among the worst.

 The Arab culture is based upon shame and honor. Most Arab men would gladly endure physical pain or even death before such dishonor as we have caused. Modesty in their women is something they will defend to the death (usually the woman's death, but that's not the point right now). Modesty in men is prized, as well. To strip them naked and force them to pantomime sex acts is to deny them their most precious possession -- their dignity.

 The Americans who did this are idiots -- and one just doesn't know what to say about those who thought it would be good idea to snap photos.

 Yes, yes, the Iraqis in those pictures are probably bad actors who may have known where the next IED (improvised explosive device) was going to be planted that would kill Americans. But coercion doesn't necessarily elicit truthful information. And look at what this tactic has cost!

 Our hope in Iraq was not just to disarm Saddam, but to gain a foothold in the war of ideas. Our war against terror is founded on the notion that certain tactics are out of moral bounds no matter what the cause. The Muslim terrorists -- who happen to have a terrible cause and hateful tactics -- draw no such distinctions. We say that we do. We claim that democratic government, religious tolerance and the rule of law prevent abuses of the kind Arabs endure daily from their despotic, narrow rulers.

 But now any invocation of our values and our standards will be met with contempt and dismissal by the Middle East audience. Even the upcoming trials of Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants have lost some of their power to teach. Already awash in conspiracy theories and mistrust of us, Iraqis will now give even more credence to every crackpot and vicious explanation of our behavior handed to them by Al Jazeera or the local newspapers. Have no doubt that this episode, while it will be seen in America as a terrible aberration, will be viewed by Arabs across the Middle East as merely the tip of the iceberg. They know what goes on in their own prisons, and now it will be nearly impossible to convince them that we are different.

 Meanwhile, every Iraqi who is pro-U.S. and pro-democracy will have to explain himself to his countrymen. He is siding with the private who held a naked Iraqi by a leash.

 It goes without saying that most American military personnel are honorable and decent, and would never commit such acts. And if this war were being waged in a pre-media age, a few episodes of this kind would not matter. But those pictures have been burned into the eyes of the whole world.

 Is it possible to repair this? Burning down the Abu Ghraib prison might be a good symbolic act. Highly photogenic. Well-placed stories about the thousands of Americans -- military and civilian -- who are risking their lives to help the Iraqis build a better future (I know one -- Simone Ledeen) will help balance the ledger, too. But most of all, Iraqis will have to see that someone is punished.

 One does not want to railroad any American soldier to satisfy the lust for revenge in the Iraqi street. But they must see that our system of justice really does function as advertised. It may be our last chance at the hearts and minds of a critical audience.