WASHINGTON - The worldwide spotlight on the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners has undercut America's moral authority abroad, particularly in the Arab world, compounding the damage to the country's reputation caused by the invasion of Iraq and a widely perceived heavy-handedness in waging the war on terrorism, commentators say.
Anti-American sentiment was on the rise well before pictures of naked and hooded Iraqis revealed a sadistic current among at least a small fraction of the occupation forces, whom U.S. officials described as liberators.
But what before was widely seen as opposition to President Bush's foreign and military policies might now be turning into a more general hostility toward the United States and Americans, analysts say.
"Over the past several years, what I took to be anti-Bush sentiment has morphed into something that looks like anti-Americanism," said Charles Kupchan, an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. "Over time, skepticism toward the United States takes on a deeper social momentum."
Bush and his top aides have taken pains over the past two days to depict the prison abuse as running totally counter to what the United States and its military stand for.
"We are a nation that's governed by the rule of law, and nowhere is that more the case than in the armed forces of the United States," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a career soldier, said yesterday.
A day earlier, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite news channel: "We came there to build schools, and to build clinics, and we want very much that the images of Americans should be the images of helping the Iraqi people."
If such images were hard to project before the prison scandal broke, they might be impossible now.
"Just when you think you've hit rock bottom, someone comes along with a jackhammer," said pollster John Zogby, describing public opinion in the Arab world. "This is about as low as it gets. Anything negative that can be conjured up about the United States will be conjured up as a result of this."
Zogby said he hasn't seen results of current polling being conducted by his firm in the Middle East, but "I'm sure we're going to find the lowest numbers we've ever found. I can bank on it."
The numbers were already low. A Pew Global Attitudes Survey published in March found that popular opinion in four mostly Muslim nations was almost universally opposed to the Iraq war and that 70 percent in Jordan believed Iraq would be worse off with Saddam Hussein gone.
For months, Al-Arabiya and another satellite news channel, Al-Jazeera, have broadcast to the Arab world a crueler side to the U.S.-led occupation than is ordinarily described by American news media, infuriating U.S. officials who say their coverage is biased and inaccurate.
However they get their news, Arabs tend to believe U.S. military abuses in Iraq are more widespread than U.S. officials acknowledge, according to Mohannad Hage Ali, political editor of Al-Hayat, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper.
On Tuesday, Mideast Mirror, which surveys the Arab-world press, reported "a broad consensus that the abuses revealed so far are merely the tip of a much larger iceberg and that the violations recorded are part of an organized and systematic pattern of behavior toward the Arab people."
Noting Bush's strong support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, many Arabs draw similarities between the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Israeli military conduct in the West Bank and Gaza, Hage Ali said. Arab news media coverage of Israeli actions often highlights such actions against Palestinians as house demolitions and extrajudicial killings of militant leaders.
Hage Ali, giving a personal view, said it appears that "many Americans do not know what's happening in their names" and said he believes the U.S. and Israeli public "are friends of the Arab people."
That view might no longer be widely shared.
"The image of the United States [in the Arab world] has been bad for a while, but people have long made a distinction between Americans and U.S. foreign policy. I think that distinction is eroding," said Jillian Schwedler, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"We've claimed a moral high ground we can no longer claim," she said. This makes it "extremely difficult" for the United States to persuade Arabs that it wants to improve the lives of Iraqis, she said.
The Bush administration has claimed that it wanted to foster democratic rule in Iraq that would reflect the nation's diverse Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations, and hoped a democratic Iraq would inspire peaceful reform throughout the region.
But the aim of democratizing the Middle East has been held up to derision as a result of the prisoner abuse.
"From what has been revealed of the democracy of torture and the freedom to violate the humanity of human beings in Iraq so far, it seems that we have seen no more than part of the U.S.-British occupation's hideous picture," a journalist wrote in the United Arab Emirates daily al-Khaleej, translated by Mideast Mirror.
During a visit to London, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, whose country is under pressure from the United States to open up its political system, commented wryly: "The United States, which calls on the world to respect human rights, should be an example and punish those who carried out these acts, which can only be described as gross violations of human rights and the Geneva Conventions."
While the Bush administration's efforts this week have focused on repairing America's image in the Arab and Muslim world, the damage is not limited to that region, analysts say.
The March Pew survey found that favorable opinion of the United States had fallen in Britain, France and Germany a year after the Iraq war began. Majorities in Germany, Turkey and France, as well as half of those polled in Britain and Russia, believed the war in Iraq had undermined the global campaign against terrorism.