"Beyond those frolicking soldiers, there is a certain cavalier attitude toward Arabs and Muslims that has created a sense that Arabs are guilty until proven otherwise," reflected Hisham Melham, a Washington correspondent for al-Arabiya television. So while America's ambitious postwar initiative to promote democracy in the "greater Middle East," -- which includes imaginative proposals, such as training 100,000 female teachers to instruct and empower girls by closing the gender gap -- will probably still make its debut at three international summits next month, it's unlikely to generate much traction anytime soon.
For now, America's ways have been discredited for many beyond America's borders. The reaction in some quarters is already ridicule. In the end, the most enduring impact of Iraq and the travesty at Abu Ghraib may be to set back the course of the Modern Era for years, even a generation or more.
With emotions so raw and expectations unquenched, I am now anxious about what will fill the vacuum. Disillusioned by what they see as the failure of the world's superpower to provide protections, Muslim societies in search of change may turn inward for sustenance and direction. There are few alternatives. Their own governments -- several of them America's allies -- have banned, imprisoned or exiled genuine opposition.
And that may not only widen the gap with the West, it could also spur an intense clash of civilizations, a prospect I had until very recently rejected. With the shared quest for empowerment, I thought it could be avoided.
But what I fear most is that frustration over Iraq and disgust with Abu Ghraib will give common cause and a rallying cry to far-flung Muslim societies. Until now, al Qaeda -- with its global reach -- has been the exception. Most Islamic groups have had local causes and operated at home or very nearby. And they've always been a distinct minority.
The worst-case scenario is that the Cold War of the 20th century is followed in the early 21st century by a very warm one, with no front lines, unpredictable offensives and a type of weaponry from which we're not yet sure how to protect ourselves. This time the majority could become involved, either by empathizing, sympathizing or actively participating in a cause they see as righting a wrong against them.
The unintended consequence of the Iraq experience could well produce a third generation of militants -- a cadre that didn't fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s or train in bin Laden's camps in the 1990s -- who will launch a conflict whose tactics, targets and goals will be even more amorphous. Their conflict will be more than an intensified or expanded war on terrorism. And, I fear, we'll be groping for a long time to figure out how to counter it -- and how to get back to finishing that final chapter of the Modern Era.
Robin Wright covers U.S. foreign policy for The Post. She has reported on the Middle East for the past 30 years.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company