Philip Bobbitt's ambitious new book casts the war on terror as an unending battle between the forces of consent and chaos.
Don't you know there's a war on?
In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, Americans were repeatedly informed that a new age had dawned. The War on Terrorism had begun, and the world would never be the same. And although it's surely true that much has changed since that horrific day, an undeniably curious aspect of this new era is the relative absence of its defining feature. At least thus far, the War on Terrorism has brought Americans plenty of war, but not much terrorism.
It would be career suicide for a politician to point this out, but a number of prominent thinkers and writers have begun to do so. Liberal critics of the Bush administration argue that the threat from terrorism has been greatly exaggerated to justify an unprecedented presidential power grab. Some traditional conservatives grumble about the orgy of borrowing and spending occasioned by a struggle against what often seems like a phantom enemy. And academics from the realist school of international relations theory, while acknowledging that the mass murder of thousands of innocents was a national tragedy, reject the idea that it somehow heralded a transformation of the very nature of global politics.
To Philip Bobbitt, such arguments augur a dangerous complacency that must be confronted. His new book, Terror and Consent, is an ambitious attempt to do just that. According to Bobbitt, the threat is very grave indeed, and requires us to move past conventional notions about terrorism, law, and the role of the state. "I believe that almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about twenty-first century terrorism…is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought," he writes. Bobbitt - a man of considerable erudition with decades of real-world experience - appears uniquely qualified for such a daunting task. He holds a doctorate in history from Oxford and a law degree from Yale, and teaches at the law school of Columbia University. During the Clinton administration, he served in senior positions on the National Security Council, and in the administration of George HW Bush, he worked as an international-law counsellor in the State Department.
In some ways, Bobbitt's mission is one of moderation. He wants to rid the war on terrorism of some of its specifically "neoconservative" flaws: the secret laws and policies, the disregard for international norms governing detention and interrogation, the obsessive focus on Islam that informs much of what passes for counterterrorism. But he also argues that liberals and realists fail to understand that twenty-first century terrorists are fundamentally different from their predecessors. Unlike groups like the IRA, which used terrorism to forward definable political goals, today's terrorists display a nihilistic belief in "terror as an end as well as a means." They appear willing - and perhaps able - to use weapons of mass destruction against civilians. And, Bobbitt maintains, they are essentially undeterrable, making a "law-enforcement" approach to terrorism ineffective.
An intriguing mixture of middle-of-the-road sobriety and contrarian spark drives Terror and Consent and makes it an enlightening, often bracing, exploration of difficult issues. But Bobbitt's laudable desire to challenge conventional wisdom - particularly of the liberal variety - sometimes leads him to rely on misleading arguments or discredited information, making him appear blinkered to the very complexity he seeks to illuminate.
Moreover, the book's self-conscious positioning as a challenge to the status quo is often complicated by Bobbitt's tendency to argue that powerful officials ought to be given the benefit of the doubt when deciding on grave issues of national security. It would seem that the role of provocateur is a poor fit for this consummate insider. It hardly helps matters that Bobbitt sometimes opts for a maddeningly precious tone, as when he professes a desire to associate his work "with that which is hopeful in mankind and gallant in mankind's adversity, which is indomitable and gives life, and leads our sympathy away in recoil."
Terror and Consent picks up from Bobbitt's last book, The Shield of Achilles. There, he argued that modern history can be understood as a series of "Long Wars": epochal struggles from which one form of political entity emerges dominant. In Bobbitt's view, the many violent conflicts waged between 1914 and 1990 should be considered parts of a single Long War to determine whether the fascist, communist, or liberal nation-state would endure. For Bobbitt, the end of the Cold War and the dawn of American hegemony did not signal the "end of history" - it simply meant that, in the battle over the fate of the nation-state, liberal democracy triumphed.
Bobbitt suggests that this triumph has itself led to the emergence of a new kind of state, the "market state", which is less concerned with directly providing for the well-being and security of its citizens than with maximising their opportunities. But like nation-states before them, market states come in two flavours: "states of consent" (liberal democracies governed by the rule of law) and "states of terror" (tyrannical regimes that govern through repression). The critical paradox is that the very things that allow market-states of consent to thrive - easy access to the free flow of capital, communications, technology, and people - also provide market-states of terror (or "virtual states" of terror like al Qa'eda) with unprecedented destructive capabilities.
This point is far from original - indeed, it has been repeated often in the past seven years. But Bobbitt, who believes that the nature of states is reflected in the nature of their foes, feels a crucial threshold has now been crossed. States of terror, he writes, now have the ability (at least in theory) not only to inflict massive harm to states of consent, but to actually transform them into states of terror by provoking drastically repressive countermeasures.
Given the nightmarish character of Bobbitt's fears, it's not surprising that, although most critics see Bush's "war model" to be the root of many of his administration's failures, Bobbitt believes that Bush does not go far enough. As he sees it, the US and its allies are indeed at war, but not on a proper war footing. Many have contended that it is futile to wage war against a tactic (terrorism), much less a psychological condition (terror). But Bobbitt, who calls for not one but multiple "Wars against Terror", envisions a multi-front campaign whose chief aim is the protection of civilians from any threats that can cause a collective condition of being terrified and rob individuals of their ability to meaningfully exercise consent.
Bobbitt rejects the "virtually universal conviction" that there is a necessary trade-off between security and civil liberties and argues that, at least in theory, the rights of citizens can in fact increase along with the powers of the state. This is especially true, he contends, when rights are far more gravely imperilled by acts of violent extremism than by incremental increases in state authority.
Unfortunately, when it comes to demonstrating how a belief in a security-rights trade-off has weakened American counterterrorism, Bobbitt sometimes misses the mark. He laments the fate of Total Information Awareness, a massive Pentagon data-mining operation that was largely scuttled in 2003 amid public outcry over privacy concerns. Bobbitt insists the program might have proven useful in detecting patterns indicative of terrorist activity. As evidence, he cites "reports in The New York Times" from 2005 that an Army data-mining program code-named Able Danger had identified four of the September 11 hijackers a year before the attacks.
That would indeed be strong evidence. But this tale was thoroughly debunked by a Pentagon investigation and a subsequent Senate report, which both concluded that Able Danger did not identify any of the hijackers prior to the attacks. Bobbitt declines to share these inconvenient findings with the reader. Bobbitt is more convincing in his discussion of torture - a critical issue, since its use threatens to blur the distinction between states of consent and terror. After a clear-eyed and painstaking consideration of the various justifications, he concludes that there must be an absolute ban on the practice, with the expectation that it will sometimes be ignored when officials believe a genuine "ticking bomb" situation exists. Such officials would still be prosecuted, but juries would have to consider "whether a reasonable person, motivated by a sincere desire to protect others, would have violated the law."
For Bobbitt, those who question the wisdom of national-security officials are frequently guilty of committing "Parmenides' Fallacy" - comparing the present with the past, instead of comparing it with various alternative presents that might have resulted if different decisions had been taken. This concept informs Bobbitt's discussions of the invasion of Iraq, a major component of the Wars against Terror. It allows us to acknowledge that Americans and Iraqis are in many ways worse off today than before the invasion, but forces us to ask - would they be better off today if the US had not invaded? Unlike many liberals who now regret their support for the war, Bobbitt - who was a forceful advocate of the invasion - believes things would be worse now, and in the future, with Saddam Hussein still alive and in power. After all, "terrorists…cannot someday call on Saddam Hussein to supply them covertly with weapons with which to attack the West," and al Qa'eda was deprived of "what could have become an important tactical [ally]."
But haven't we learnt that neither of those scenarios were likely? Saddam did not have weapons to proliferate, and there proved to be no evidence that he was liable to become a tactical ally of al Qa'eda. In refusing to admit this, Bobbitt commits a fallacy worse than Parmenides'. His thinking here approaches what the journalist Ron Suskind dubbed "the one per cent doctrine", Dick Cheney's brand of national-security strategy: the belief that the US must treat a disastrous outcome with a one per cent chance of occurring as though it were a certainty.
Bobbitt seems to be arguing that if leaving Saddam in power meant the slightest risk of future catastrophe - even though we now know how unlikely it would have been - invading Iraq was the right choice, no matter the outcome. Nevermind that Iraq has become a training ground for terrorists and the emerging Iraqi state is closer in practice to a state of terror than a state of consent. One might fairly question whether such these problematic elements are the most important aspects of a work hailed by The New York Times as "the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy…since the end of the Cold War." It's true that few thinkers have gone as far as Bobbitt in constructing a fully-realised vision of the choices and challenges that will face the US and the world in the coming century. But it's precisely its grand scale and huge ambition that obliges one to hold Bobbitt's book to a higher standard than the dozens of titles published in recent years by newly-minted, self-appointed "experts" on terrorism. Bobbitt is no mere pundit or op-ed columnist. That, of course, is why it's disappointing when he argues like one.
Justin Vogt is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.