The intensifying war in Iraq looks like being a watershed in modern history. Critics of the war have focused on the suffering it has involved and pointed to a number of errors that have been made in the course of the country's ongoing reconstruction. The suffering and mistakes are real enough, but they should not be allowed to conceal the much larger change of which the war is a part. Liberal societies are evolving rapidly to a higher stage of development, in which many traditions will become obsolete.
Under the aegis of the world's most advanced liberal state, torture and collective punishment have once again become normal practice in the conduct of war. To some this may seem anomalous, even contradictory. In reality it is the inner logic of liberal values applied in a time of unprecedented transformation. Liberalism is a universal creed and the crusade for freedom cannot be fettered by archaic legal procedures. Treaties such as the Geneva Convention may have served the cause of freedom in the past, but today they are obstacles to liberal values. A global revolution is in progress in which such quaint relics have no place.
There are many signs that the new American administration has grasped this truth. In Europe, the Bush White House is frequently caricatured as an ultra-reactionary cabal, but this only shows that Europeans are mired in the past. It requires only a little impartial observation - unclouded by the anti-Americanism that is so prevalent in Europe - to see that it is, in fact, an administration dominated by ultra-liberals. By no stretch of the imagination can the neoconservatives who are the intellectual and moral backbone of the administration be called reactionaries or, indeed, conservatives. As they have always made clear, they are radical progressives dedicated to a worldwide democratic revolution in which the freedoms enjoyed by Americans become the entitlement of all. This and nothing else is Mr Bush's mission.
Over the coming four years we can expect to see its commitment to universal freedom continued and extended. In Iraq, the liberation of Fallujah will be repeated in other cities, and America will take the fight for freedom to another level. The reform of antiquated legal and penal practices that has been pioneered in Guantanamo will be taken further. Serious consideration will be given to applying the policies of pre-emptive attack and regime change to Iran, and perhaps Syria. In these and other areas the Bush administration will be acting as the vanguard of human freedom, and it will receive the unswerving support of all those - such as Tony Blair - who understand that it is doing no more than applying core liberal values in the turbulent conditions of our time.
Despite the evidence of the Bush administration's actions, there will be those who quibble with the idea that it is dedicated to liberal ideals. In order to dispel this confusion, let us consider the nature of liberalism, and what - if applied consistently - it means in practice. Take regime change. For true liberals, sovereign states can only be accidents of history, with no claim on our allegiance. Human rights know no borders. Only individuals have rights, and when states violate them they can be invaded and overthrown. A new state can then be established, which respects its citizens as autonomous individuals.
As we all know, things are not always so straightforward. When we are liberating human beings from oppressive regimes, we must reckon with the dead weight of history. Many, perhaps even most, human beings display an irrational attachment to their existing identity, and it cannot be taken for granted that they will automatically welcome the freedom that is being offered them after regime change. They may fail to perceive their culture as being oppressive and be tempted to resist the advance of liberal values. If regime change is really to work in these circumstances, the entire society must be rebuilt. However, in order for that to be possible, it must first be destroyed.
It is this insight that underpins the initiative that is presently being implemented in Fallujah. There are those who say that the destruction of Fallujah is an act of collective punishment for the murder of four American contractors last March. From a narrow legal point of view this may be correct, but "flattening Fallujah" - as the initiative has come to be described by US forces - has a larger significance. It is an early trial of the top-to-bottom reconstruction of Iraqi society that will be required if liberal values are to prevail in the country and the new regime is to survive.
According to US sources, Fallujah's 250,000 inhabitants will return to the devastated city only slowly. This is in order for them to be biometrically catalogued - fingerprinted and retina-scanned - and given an ID card which they will be required to display at all times. With these cards in view, they will be free to move to a number of authorised destinations. Access to and from the city will be controlled by well-fortified checkpoints, with authority to use deadly force if any of the city's residents violate the conditions under which they have been permitted to return. Private motor vehicles will be forbidden. With these policies in place, the entire population can be subjected to continuous surveillance.
From an historical standpoint this may seem no more than another variation on the " secure hamlet" programmes that were used by the British in Malaya and the Americans in Vietnam, with limited success - particularly in Vietnam. Looking to the future, however, it can be seen as a necessary first step in a programme of social reconstruction in which Iraqis are being prepared for life as autonomous individuals. A modern liberal society cannot function if people are locked into networks of family and clan, and acquire their beliefs and values from authoritarian religious leaders. If there is to be anything resembling personal autonomy in the new Iraq, these traditional structures must be dissolved. It is not enough to raze buildings and empty cities. The underlying framework of society must be deconstructed, and reconstituted on a liberal model. This is the experiment under way in Fallujah, which will surely be extended to Mosul, Ramadi and other cities.
It is an ambitious undertaking, with no guarantee of success. For those who are not used to it freedom can come as a shock, and in Iraq the shock of freedom has been considerable. A certain amount of disorder has resulted, and except in the Kurdish zones (where there are no US troops) the forces of fundamentalism and terrorism seem temporarily to have been strengthened. Further military action will undoubtedly be required, including intensive bombing to soften up rebel-held cities and the deployment of hit squads to eliminate insurgents, on the model of the action taken by the Reagan administration in El Salvador some 20 years ago.
Still, it cannot be expected that further military action by America's forces in Iraq - however intensive - will eradicate the insurgency entirely. The problem of terrorism is global, and it demands a global solution. It is in order to tackle this problem that Mr Bush is extending the far-reaching reforms of penal and judicial practice implemented during the first administration. It has been announced that US authorities are planning to use the facility they have established at Guantanamo for the permanent detention without charge or trial of some of its inmates. Under these new arrangements, detainees will be housed in humane conditions that permit activity and socialising during what is expected to be lifelong confinement. The first Bush II administration's directives allowing the use of modern interrogation techniques will not be altered - and rightly so. As I noted in a New Statesman essay some time ago ("A modest proposal", 17 February 2003), the common belief that torture is always contrary to liberal values has no rational basis. No one has the right to attack basic human rights - and terrorism is above all an attack on human rights. No human rights are violated when a terrorist is tortured.
The American authorities - closely followed, as ever, by the British - have understood this basic truth, and are setting up a permanent legal framework in which torture can be regu- lated. At a hearing of the Senate judicial committee this month, President Bush's nominee for the post of attorney general, Alberto R Gonzales, strongly defended his record as legal counsel in the first Bush II administration. In a memorandum to the president in 2002, Gonzales had announced the "new paradigm" that "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions". Quizzed by members of the committee, the presidential nominee held to this view and went on to suggest that the US should consider renegotiating such treaties.
Whether or not the US formally reneges on the Geneva Convention, torture has been re-established in the legal process - not only in America but also in Britain, where courts now accept evidence obtained by its use. These reforms will surely prevent many abuses. The administrative confusion that prevailed at Abu Ghraib, which allowed a number of embarrassing incidents to be widely publicised, is unlikely to recur.
It is no accident that torture has been reintroduced by the world's pre-eminent liberal state. To be sure, torture is used by many regimes - not only those inspired by liberal ideals. It is routinely employed in tyrannies and the ramshackle failed states that litter the globe; but only in liberal states is it part of a crusade for human rights. Liberalism is a project of universal emancipation, and torture will be necessary as long as the spread of liberal values is resisted. When the Bush administration authorises the use of torture, it does so in the cause of human progress.
It is this that explains why there has been so little resistance to its reintroduction. The reform of legal procedure required has been quite far-reaching, yet it has been implemented quickly and effectively, and with the evident support of enlightened opinion. It is encouraging to report that most liberal commentators have tacitly endorsed the reform, while a growing number - so far mostly in the United States - actively defend it. Sadly, continental Europe - thoroughly corroded by moral relativism and lacking any deep commitment to the universality of liberal values - has been slow to accept the need for change.
No one can doubt the scale of the revolution that is under way throughout the world, but there may still be some who question that it is inspired by liberal values. The Iraq war is old-fashioned imperialism, they will say, not the next step in liberalism. There can be no doubt that Iraq's large oil reserves figured in the strategic calculations that were made in the White House in the run-up to war. The neoconservatives who engineered American military intervention in Iraq have always made clear that securing control of the country's oil is a crucial part of their strategy of democratising the Middle East, but this is far removed from anything resembling imperialism. Aside from exploiting them for their resources, European imperialists left the countries that they conquered much as they were. While they may have talked of spreading civilisation, they did little in practice to alter the underlying societies. In contrast, America plans to transform Iraq into a freedom-loving democracy.
It is a task that must be completed in the fairly near future, or else support for the war may crumble in the United States. Mr Bush would then be under pressure to declare victory and withdraw US forces before the job is done - an outcome Europeans have expected all along. The fragile interim regime would collapse and the country would descend into civil war and theocracy. Iraq's oil would pass out of US control - most likely into Iranian hands - and Saudi Arabia would face worsening instability, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the American economy. The entire American project in the Middle East would be endangered, and American power itself put at risk.
With these dangers in mind, Mr Bush may well decide to extend the war to Iran. Such a move will be risky. US forces are already somewhat stretched, and a further land invasion would pose some difficult logistical problems. Even if the US confines itself to bombing Iran, it risks retaliation through an escalation of Iranian-supported unconventional warfare in Iraq.
However, the Bush administration's policy in the Middle East has never been one that seeks mere stability. In the words of the neoconservatives who now more than ever shape its policies, the US aims to promote "creative destruction" throughout the region. Iran's nuclear ambitions are, in any case, shifting the balance of power. In these conditions, a widening of the war is the logic of events.
It is also the logic of liberal values. Liberalism is nothing if it is not a crusade, and the Middle East clearly needs conversion. The battle will be hard and long, and the hope of progress may sometimes be dim. Yet it will not be extinguished. It is burning even now, as Mr Bush and his neoconservative strategists plan the next phase of the global democratic revolution.
John Gray is the author of Heresies: against progress and other illusions, published by Granta Books