A German reader who was appalled at my suggestion last December that we make Saddam Hussein spend of the rest of his life in a box into which videotaped depositions of the victims of his regime were streamed endlessly (he thought it would be torture, whereas I would be more inclined to call it karmic justice), wanted to know what I thought about the US treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

Well, in no uncertain terms: It is shameful. But more than that, it very simply marks the moment at which I believe the United States has unequivocally lost the larger war for the future of Iraq and of the Middle East, the war, if you will, of the hearts and minds of the Iraqis and of those of good will in the region. Whether one believes that deposing Saddam was a good thing or not, our armed forces have given the enemies of the United States the evidence they need to posit a moral equivalency between us and him, regardless of whether it is true. We have no one to blame for this but ourselves: If one does not wish to be compared to a brutal dictator who crushed and tortured the Iraqi people, one should not, in fact, crush and torture Iraqis in that brutal dictator’s most infamous prison.

We tortured Iraqis, and the impassioned appeals that such treatment is not representative of our nation’s ideals is utterly aside the point. Those people writing about how noble it was for us to quickly own up to our failings gloss over the salient fact that we have something we need to own up to. Everyone who wants credit for everything we’ve done right in Iraq fails to appreciate that you can’t get credit for doing a bunch of little things right if the things you get wrong are so goddamned spectacular. It’s nice that people are sending toys and school supplies to Iraq. But plush toys and pencils are no match for pictures of US soldiers setting dogs upon naked, cowering Iraqis. It’s not even close.

There’s a word for this sort of thing: Incompetence, and that word sticks to just about everything this current administration has done in Iraq from the moment our forces stabbed into Baghdad. The military offensive was bold and brilliantly done; the occupation of the country has been utterly abysmal, and everything about it seems to have been designed to squander what good will we accrued by freeing the country from Saddam’s grip. This could have been a “good war” — not an easy war — had our administration showed some indication that it actually cared what happened to Iraq and the people within it once Saddam was kicked out of power. But it didn’t, and to a large extent still doesn’t — which is not entirely surprising to me since I personally never believed that George Bush had any interest in invading Iraq except to avenge his father. I had hoped that those around him might show some evidence of long-term thinking once Dubya’s limited objective had been accomplished, but I guess I was wrong about that.

I’m still not sorry we went in and got rid of Saddam — it was an action too long in coming. But everything since then has been nothing short of a disaster; Abu Ghraib is not an exception but the end result of systematic incompetence that plagues the entire enterprise. The abuse and torture the Iraqi prisoners suffered is the fruit of lack of forethought, lack of planning, lack of intent, and lack of care. To put it bluntly, this simply wouldn’t have happened if those at the top of the food chain actually gave a shit about Iraq. But they don’t. Dubya stopped caring the instant they flushed Saddam out of his bug hole; everything since then as been (literally) killing time until we can bug out and claim some sort of moral victory. Well, Abu Ghraib robbed us of that.

Who is responsible? Well, there certainly seems to be enough blame to go around, doesn’t there. Those at the top didn’t care or didn’t want to know or at the very least seem more annoyed that truth is out there than they are of the fact of the torture itself. Depending on who you believe, those at the bottom were either untrained to serve as prison guards and left without real supervision or instruction, or they were following orders from above which explicitly condoned torture. One is malignant neglect, the other is simply evil. It all stinks, from head to tail, and it seems unlikely to me that anyone is going to come away clean.

Personally, what I wish were that it were November so I could cast my vote and register my disgust with this current administration, which in this as in nearly every other thing it has done has shown little but contempt for anyone and anything that is not of its own narrow ilk. Bush and his people are staggeringly bad at their jobs — they are so bad that even their good ideas rot and fester as soon as they are taken out of the bag. This is what you get when the President of the United States is a man who has a level of self-introspection that is best described as canine, and whose cadre of cronies appear outraged at the idea that they can and should be held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof).

This is the worst president and administration since I’ve been alive — yes, even worse than Nixon, because as paranoid and bad as he was, some of his administrative policies did more good than harm. Nixon was criminal, but he wasn’t an incompetent. It’s rather terrifying to say that I’d prefer a competent criminal in the Oval Office than the contemptuous incompetent who is in there now. But there it is. As I’ve said before, Bush isn’t the worst president ever — Buchanan, Harding and (probably) Grant are ahead of him in the queue — but if someone else wants to be the worst president of the 21st century, he or she is really going to have to work at it.

Abu Ghraib is a defining image of the incompetence, contemptuousness and stupidity of this administration; if it eventually helps boot Bush from office, then some good may come from it. I’m sure that the more agitated Bush supporters will try to find a way to make a parallel between Abu Ghraib and the Madrid Bombing; i.e., that it was an example of terrorists gaming the system to get rid of an adversary. But Abu Ghraib is a self-inflicted wound. Al Qaeda didn’t make US servicemen and women torture Iraqis.

I’m sure my German correspondent would want to know how I can declare what happened at Abu Ghraib shameful and yet be perfectly content to inflict what he feels is torture on Saddam Hussein. The answer is simple: I am not my government or my military. It’s one thing for me to concoct what I feel are karmically appropriate punishments against mass murdering dictators in the privacy of my own mind; it’s another thing for my government and military to condone torture or through incompetence or inaction allow torture to occur. As a private individual I’m allowed my fantasies, but my government and my military exist in the real world. I’m not going to be allowed to mete punishment on Saddam, so I am free to creative imaginative sentences. My government and my military are meting out punishment, however, on actual people, none of whom approach the high stinkin’ evil of Saddam. So I would that their creativeness be somewhat less terrible than my own.