Back when he was running for president, in 2000, Sen. John McCain routinely referred to Bill Clinton's handling of world affairs as a "feckless photo-op foreign policy." Four years later, Clinton's foreign policy seems fairly filled with feck when contrasted with his successor's.

Has any official United States policy in recent memory been as feckless as the Bush administration's for postwar Iraq? Can we, for a moment, recall just some of the assumptions that the administration announced or embraced? That Americans would be welcomed as liberators? That we could secure the nation with a force of a little more than 100,000 troops? That Iraqi oil revenue would be such that the occupation would pay for itself? That, in accord with our assumptions on troop requirements and postwar financing, we didn't really need the kind of international cooperation that the nation had historically sought for this kind of venture? That, in accord with the same assumptions, there was no reason not to enact more massive tax cuts for the rich?

With the revelations that have emerged of the degradation and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, it's become particularly clear that the administration gave no real thought to the challenges at the very heart of occupying another country. Occupations can be relatively benign, but only when the occupier is viewed by the occupied as a temporary, legitimate expedient, concerned with and able to enhance the occupied nation's reconstruction. If that perception begins to crumble, and if resistance erupts, occupations turn brutal, no matter how noble their goals may be.

That hasn't always posed an immediate problem for many of history's leading occupying powers: Imperial Rome and, until its latter days, imperial Britain weren't troubled very much by the opinions of a resentful public. But the United States, and the entire Western world, are engaged in a long-term battle against fundamentalist Islam, a battle that ultimately and immediately has as its goal the Islamic public's support. At times that battle must be military, as was the case in Afghanistan after the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of the time, however, that battle will be fought in the social, political and economic spheres, and it is on that terrain that the liberal democratic model will -- or should -- triumph.

Which is why military occupations offer the worst possible terrain on which to fight the battle of ideas. From the French in Indochina and Algeria to the British in South Asia and the United States in Central America and Vietnam, occupations are where liberal democracies go to betray their ideals -- if not as a matter of intent then, inevitably, as a matter of execution. One way or another, it becomes necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

But if one thing is clear beyond dispute in the muddle of post-Saddam Iraq, it is that the Bush administration gave no thought whatever to the problems inherent in occupation. No one thought to protect Iraq's cultural treasures. No one thought to secure the nation's power grid. No one thought to enlarge our own armed forces, so that we weren't sending civilian National Guard troops and private contractors to do a soldier's job, with a clear chain of command in place.

And clearly, no one sought to train those Guardsmen assigned to duty at Abu Ghraib prison in the rudiments of the Geneva Conventions and our Army's regulations on the treatment of prisoners. Instead, they were thrown into a system that was being redesigned to "Gitmo-ize" the treatment of detainees there -- that is, to deal with prisoners the same way we treat the al Qaeda prisoners and others at our Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, free from prying eyes and the codes of either civilian or military law. And Gitmo-ize the prisoners is just what some of our guards at Abu Ghraib did. Some prisoners, apparently, were Gitmo-ized to death.

It defies all belief that the young women and men of an Army Reserve unit from West Virginia were some kind of sadistic cult just waiting to be called away from their civilian lives to torture prisoners in Iraq. I doubt they brought the hoods, the dogs, the nightsticks with them. They were doing the very dirty work of an occupation that, as it's developed, could hardly be more counterproductive to our ultimate goal -- the liberalization of the Islamic world -- if we'd planned it that way.

But then, at the White House and at the highest (that is, civilian) levels of the Pentagon, every assumption about the occupation was rooted in fantasy. And on that topic and its role in the affairs of the occupiers and the occupied, I defer to Ireland's great poet, William Butler Yeats. "We fed the heart on fantasy," he wrote, "the heart grew brutal on the fare."

meyersonh@washpost.com