Matthew Dancona

A manual for our times

Matthew d'Ancona on the new book by Philip Bobbitt

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Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century

Philip Bobbitt

Allen Lane, pp. 672, £

This book is so important that I hope the publishers have the civic spirit to send a copy to every parliamentarian, decision-maker and opinion-former in the land. For Philip Bobbitt, the legal and constitutional historian best known for The Shield of Achilles, has drawn nothing less than a philosophical route-map for the war on terror and the geopolitical crisis of the early 21st century. The fact that he has done so in the calm, lucid tones of meticulous scholarship, without recourse to ideology or what Martin Amis would call ‘Westernism’, only adds to the book’s appeal.

Bobbitt, who holds a chair at Columbia University and has served in the White House and on the National Security Council, is resolute about the scale of the challenge. Al Qaeda, he warns, is ‘only a herald’ of worse to come. ‘The developments that empower terror are gaining,’ he writes, ‘as markets increase, as weapons technologies diffuse, as clandestine communications become more effective and infrastructures more fragile — at a faster pace than our defenses, our preemptive strategies, and our legal institutions are adapting.’

He is in no doubt that ‘the wars against 21st-century terror are preclusive in nature; that is, they seek to head off a state of affairs that has the potential to disable consensual governance well in advance of imminent aggression.’ And he is unashamed in his insistence that the United States is ‘the one state capable of leading coalitions to defend us’.

But Terror and Consent is emphatically not a neo-con tract — nor could it be, given Bobbitt’s convictions, temperament and ancestry (he is Lyndon Johnson’s nephew). Indeed, that is one of the book’s many strengths. It takes as its premise the alarming contention that ‘almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about 21st- century terrorism and its relationship to the wars against terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought.’

The Bush Doctrine, for instance, is intrinsically flawed because its various ends are incompatible. The promotion of democracy, WMD control, the taming of rogue states: all these have their place, argues Bobbitt, but are rarely co-terminous. Look at Iran, he says: ‘The Bush Doctrine is simply irrelevant to the only realistic course available,’ which, in the author’s view, will be a complex brew of bribery (security guarantees, access to nuclear energy), multilateral sanctions, and the gradual extension of political and economic opportunity to Iran’s citizens.

Back to basics with Prof Bobbitt, then. To understand the wars on terror (he prefers the plural), we must first explore their constitutional context, ‘the underlying constitutional order’. Caribbean pirates, he contends, were the ‘terrorists of the kingly state’. In the 20th century, we fought ‘the industrial wars of the nation state’. But we now live in the era of what Bobbitt calls the ‘market state’ — globalised, networked, part-privatised, porous to capital, culture and people.

And herein lies the core of his argument: today’s strains of terrorism are only intelligible in terms of the vulnerabilities of the ‘market state’. We must stop thinking in terms of Islamic civil war, cultural clashes and democratisation in the Middle East — important as those debates are — and ask how contemporary forms of terror arose now in particular, and why they are so potent.

‘Like new antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis,’ Bobbitt writes, ‘market state terrorism is a function of what we have done to eradicate old threats. That is, its principal causes are the liberalisation of the global economy, the internationalisation of the electronic media, and the military- technological revolution — all ardently sought innovations that won the Long War of the 20th century.’ Within this setting, the battle ahead is not between Islam and the West, or the might of a hyperpower and the cunning of bearded men in mountain hideaways, but between terror and consent.

The corollary is that we shift our collective focus from the terrorists and what motivates them — as important as that is — to our own vulnerabilities: what Bobbitt calls ‘a supply side analysis that focuses on our own exposure’. And in a world of bio-terror (not to mention mutating diseases, independent of terror) ‘our own security is only as strong as the weakest of the public health systems worldwide’.

Though this is a deeply scholarly book and one studded with literary references (Shakespeare, John Gay, Hardy, Eliot, Joseph Heller), it is not short on specifics. On the US domestic front, he recommends, inter alia, a federal isolation and quarantine statute and regulations, national identification cards, legislation to permit the president to federalise National Guard troops in a natural disaster, new rules for preventive detention, and a better system for the analysis of personal data.

From this brief list, you might conclude that Bobbitt is an authoritarian, bored by the rule of law and civil liberties. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is, first and foremost, the work of a jurist, passionately insistent that the law not be vandalised or ignored in the difficult times ahead. To ensure this, however, he is no less insistent that the law must adapt and that international lawyers, in particular, must not allow the global corpus iuris to ossify: ‘International rules must bear a closer resemblance to the actual practices of international actors or these rules will be ignored and a separate set of customs will take the place of law.’ We must be less like Blackstone, defending a sacred common law inheritance, and more like Mansfield, who based his legal judgment on practical observation and marketplace reality. This is the path back to the legitimacy that has been squandered by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the international trauma over the legality of the Iraq War.

With this in mind, Bobbitt offers his own 12-point inventory of proposals, including a new international convention on the trade in biological or fissile stocks for weapons; a new jurisprudence on what constitutes a threat to international security under Article 7 of the UN Charter; an amendment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on the creation of highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium; and the creation of a standing international Terror Court.

Further, he proposes a new global structure, with fresh criteria for intervention:

An alliance of democracies that includes the United States and Great Britain will intervene in three circumstances: when substantial strategic interests and substantial humanitarian concerns intersect; or when absent a vital strategic interest, humanitarian concerns are extremely high owing to an acute crisis — famine, civil war, disease, genocide — and risks are apparently low; or when truly vital strategic interests are in truly imminent danger.

If your response to any of this is ‘Yes, but’, then we’re getting somewhere. Though his prose is often lapidary in its beauty, Bobbitt is not handing down tablets of stone — how could he, at this stage in the conflict? — but proposing a new agenda for considered reflection. The Cold War had a dazzling pantheon of theorists (Kennan, Viner, Schlesinger) to explain and influence its course, but the War on Terror has conspicuously failed to generate such scholarship — until now. Let us hope that, in this masterpiece and manual for our times, Philip Bobbitt is leading where others will follow.