The first victims of U.S. prison abuse at Abu Ghraib were Iraqis. But those who will pay a price also live in Libya and Hong Kong, Venezuela and Burma, and anywhere else human rights are in jeopardy.

They will pay a price because America's capacity to stand up to dictators, and stand up for their victims, is the lowest it has been in memory. And so far at least, President Bush either does not appreciate or does not care enough about this handicap to begin taking the steps that might point to recovery.

"Of course our hands have never been completely clean," says a friend in the human-rights-and-democracy-promotion world. "But this is different. Our hands are unclean in a way we haven't known about since My Lai."

Is this is an exaggeration? You might dismiss some of the domestic criticism, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems to, as the carping of political opponents. You might discount some of the reaction of the Arab world, too, where official newspapers have long delighted in proclaiming U.S. hypocrisy.

"Nobody is surprised," shrugs Olivier Roy, the French authority on political Islam, when asked whether the photos will spur al Qaeda recruiting. "Nobody expects the Americans to come to the Mideast to establish democracy. They think you come for oil, or for Israel. For the man in the street, what else would you expect from the Americans?"

Bad enough if we fail to exceed their expectations. But when you listen to America's friends around the world -- the people who want the United States to play a leading role -- you get a better sense of the damage.

Listen, for example, to Tommy Koh, Singapore's former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations: "We believed in American exceptionalism, and American exceptionalism has proven to be fraudulent."

Or Kim Kyung Won, who held similar posts for South Korea: "These things happen in a lot of countries. But we had the expectation that the United States is different. So the revelation that this happens in U.S. prisons makes us sad -- more sad than angry."

Or Farooq Sobhan, former foreign secretary and U.N. ambassador of the South Asian Muslim nation of Bangladesh: "This is a shot in the arm for the extremists, the guys who have been saying, 'You can't trust the Americans, this is a war on Muslims.' And as of now there is no credible response."

Sobhan said he wishes the U.S. administration would respond far more energetically to this crisis, holding higher-ups accountable, pledging adherence to international law and, above all, listening and reaching out to governments and people in countries like his.

If all this seems theoretical, consider six real-world people who may be about to die. Five Bulgarian health workers and a Palestinian doctor have been sentenced to death by firing squad in Libya for intentionally infecting 400 children with HIV. Dictator Moammar Gaddafi, most likely seeking to distract attention from squalid conditions inside his hospitals, found some foreign scapegoats and accused them of taking orders from the CIA and the Israeli secret service. When the United States protested the sentence last week, Libya turned out 1,000 demonstrators to burn American flags and said the U.S. government has "no moral authority anymore to talk about human rights" in light of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Dictators forever have sought to deflect criticism by playing to anti-Americanism. The difference now is that the United States can hardly talk back. It might have had some influence over Gaddafi at this moment. But the State Department delayed publication of its own annual human rights report -- which in past years has criticized other governments for precisely the kinds of practices that U.S. officials have authorized in Iraq.

Some will say this is all to the good if it diminishes the hubris of what President Bill Clinton called the "indispensable nation." They will say that slave-owning, Indian-eradicating, dictator-propping America was never anything but a fraudulent champion of human rights.

But if you could ask the dissidents and human rights champions who over the decades, in isolated prison cells and frozen work camps, have somehow gotten word that U.S. diplomats or presidents had not forgotten them; if you could ask the elected leader of Burma, who is still under house arrest; or the peasants who are being chased from their villages in western Sudan, or the democrats being slowly squashed in Hong Kong by the Communists in Beijing -- if you could ask any of them, you might get a different answer. They might tell you that the United States has never been perfect, has never done enough, has never been free of hypocrisy -- but also that if America cannot take up their cause, no one will.

fredhiatt@washpost.com