America may not have brought democracy to Iraq yet, but it has democratized Iraq's technology. Starting a website is now legal, and so is entering an online chat room. Nongovernmental Internet cafes have sprung up, and cellphones are spreading.
And don't forget digital cameras. One way to view technology's role in the Abu Ghraib scandal is as another example of digital democratization -- of technology decentralizing power, letting little people make big waves. During World War II, American prison guards didn't have the power to flood their government with bad publicity. And in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, abused prisoners had no chance of seeing their plight vividly brought to the world's attention.
Seen in this light, Abu Ghraib looms even larger than before. The revolution it is part of -- grass-roots digital empowerment -- will change the nature of war and the place of war in American foreign policy.
Some people who see the scandal as technologically driven are suggesting technological reforms: tightening troops' access to e-mail, for example, or banning digital cameras. But although these would cut down on digital blowback, they would hardly stop it. Even before the Abu Ghraib uproar, digital images were fueling anti-Americanism and complicating the occupation -- and the images weren't coming from American cameras. With camcorders increasingly common, Iraqis watching Al Jazeera have seen much more Iraqi suffering than American TV viewers realize.
Meanwhile, Iraqi insurgents have already put gruesome images from the war into recruiting videos, distributed on DVDs. And Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are sure to splice the Abu Ghraib photos into their own videos, viewable on the Web. Some Americans want to release all the Abu Ghraib images in hopes of "getting this behind us," but those images will be turning Muslim minds toward terrorism for years to come.
Digital aid to the insurgency goes beyond public relations. Cellphones and e-mail are no doubt helping to coordinate attacks, and the Internet probably played a role in conveying recipes for those "improvised explosive devices." Even their detonation involves consumer electronics -- remote controls for toy cars.
At one level, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld grasps the power of digital technology. His famously lean attack force was loaded with microelectronics -- from night-vision goggles for infantrymen to data-rich displays for tank drivers, all tied together with wireless communication. It was because our troops were digitally empowered that we needed so few of them.
But this cuts both ways. The same technology that empowers our foot soldiers wound up empowering -- and inspiring -- their foot soldiers. The digital wave that let us win the war with a small force meant that we needed a large force the moment the war ended. Rumsfeld got only half of that picture.
Once you figure technology into both sides of the ledger, under the cons as well as the pros of invasion, war looks different. Even if we avoid future prisoner abuse scandals, wars will bring more bad publicity than they used to, as smaller, cheaper and ever-more-pervasive cameras and camcorders create images that are manna for grass-roots propagandists. (Imagine civilians whose neighborhoods are bombed uploading pictures of wounded, crying children directly to the Web.) And digital technologies more broadly will boost any postwar insurgencies.
Yes, winning wars may be easier now. But winning in a larger sense -- keeping the postwar peace, and keeping anti-Americanism from more deeply infiltrating the world's terrorist breeding grounds -- may be harder. However laudable President Bush's goal of toppling dictators and then plugging their newly pluralistic nations into the global economy, pursuing it will be costlier than he figured.
On a brighter note: The technologies that make these wars costly may make them less necessary. Right now, the digital revolution is complicating life for the very authoritarians who need toppling. The technologies that decentralize political power -- computers, modems, mobile picture-phones -- are the infrastructure of a modern economy.
To restrict them tightly is to condemn your nation to a poverty that, in the long run, is politically unsustainable. (Who really believes that North Korea can stick with its splendid Stalinist isolation for another decade? And what other nation is even trying to wall off technological reality so completely?) We can do things to abet technology's revolutionary logic -- like engage these nations in trade. But the seeds of the revolution already lie within their borders.
This digitally driven transition from authoritarianism to pluralism, from closed societies to open societies, will be turbulent. (The authoritarian Saudi regime could give way to an authoritarian theocracy, and it would take time for the new authoritarians to themselves succumb to the pluralizing drift of technology, as Iran's tenacious if doomed theocrats are showing.) But clearly, imposing the transition from closed to open society by force is turbulent, too, in the digital age -- not to mention costly in dollars, lives and global goodwill.
The good news from Abu Ghraib is that technological evolution is on our side -- on the side of democracy and transparency, and against barbarism, whether the barbarism comes from a dictator or a prison guard. In trying to create a world of open societies, Bush is going with the flow of history. The sooner he realizes that, the better.
Copyright 2004, Los Angeles Times