The abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison has left a dark stain on the Bush administration's ideal of turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy for Arabs.
But is it a stain that can be removed by simply punishing the abusers, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested on Friday, along with official apologies to Iraqis?
Or will Americans so recoil at the contradiction between the war's proffered nobility of aims and the ignoble savagery of the soldiers' atrocities that they demand an early pullout from Iraq?
Support for a war can erode quickly if the war's ideals don't match its methods. The very identity of the United States relies on upholding ideals, such as spreading democracy and proper conduct in war. President Bush risks losing American support for the Iraq campaign if he fails to ensure that soldiers don't commit more atrocities.
Mr. Bush cannot do what President Theodore Roosevelt did in 1902 during the war to subdue the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
When a US general ordered all Filipinos under the age of 10 on the island of Samar to be killed in retaliation for an attack on US soldiers, Americans were outraged. Congress held hearings. The general was court-martialed. And what did Roosevelt do? He simply declared victory and an end to the insurrection, while reducing the number of troops. But fighting continued for years, keeping 50,000 US soldiers busy in the Philippines.
Bush can't muddle through in Iraq as Roosevelt did in the Philippines. The US has made many mistakes since the invasion, but Abu Ghraib has a special, perverse resonance. The US needs to regain the moral high ground it has lost. The climb back will take specific actions, and not just words or gestures.
Bush can start by ordering a retraining (or training) on the Geneva Conventions for frontline soldiers. These international rules on the conduct of war and the proper handling of prisoners need to be understood by even the lowest ranks.
The president must also close down Abu Ghraib prison. This will help remove Arab suspicions that the US has not learned its lesson.
He must open up the military judicial process handling the prisoner abuse cases to the public, or at least to the media.
And to win back Arab moderates in the Middle East and suppress anti-US terrorism, Bush needs to show he is delivering a Palestinian state by his own goal of 2005.
Abu Ghraib could become America's reason to retreat from Iraq, and perhaps a global leadership role. It needn't be if actions are taken soon.