With "war on terror" nearly seven years old, Philip Bobbitt, a distinguished US academic and former policymaker, has written a big book that attempts to reframe the way we think about terrorism and our response to it. Terror and Consent is clearly intended to be read as a new paradigm for this campaign, on a par with but replacing "the end of history" or "the clash of civilisations" or, further back, the containment theory that framed US policy towards the USSR.
It is timely. With Bush at last on his way out, there is a rare opening for fresh thinking. No one in the United States, including Bobbitt, pretends anything other than that the current administration has made a pretty good mess of it. With badly planned and poorly executed conflicts still burning in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Osama Bin Laden at large and undefeated, it is hard to claim otherwise. A debate rumbles on about the extent to which al-Qaeda has been weakened by recent arrests and targeted killings (by CIA drones over Pakistan, for instance) but no one is claiming that the enemy has been vanquished.
Bobbitt spans the discourses of history, law and the military to make his case. His big new argument is that the nature of today's terrorism, of which al-Qaeda is a mere forerunner, flows directly from the nature of the state, the decentralised, contracted-out polity he calls the "market state". He cites analysis of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani nuclear proliferator A Q Khan to suggest that, from now on, terrorism will be unprecedented in its murderousness and scattered in its organisation (and thus harder to target) and, most worryingly, is likely to be armed, one day soon, with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons. Such terrorism will be enduring, difficult to defeat and uniquely dangerous. Its aims and conduct suggest that the appropriate metaphor to describe it, and thus deal with it, is, indeed, a "war": one of the few points on which Bobbitt agrees with the Bush administration.
To combat this threat, states should conduct themselves with the support of the populace (the "consent" of Bobbitt's title) and within the law: without these pillars, any fight will be undetermined. If the struggle requires new, hitherto illegal measures, the law should be changed by consent, democratically, rather than be ignored. The U.S. (and this is a very US-centric analysis) will need allies to win, and should not alienate them by its actions.
So far, so sensible, though one is struck that such common-sense recommendations should seem so remarkable. They are remarkable, of course, only because the world has endured an administration that has ignored such obvious reason hitherto. However, I cannot join the almost universal fanfare of praise that has greeted this book in both Britain and the US (Niall Ferguson said in the New York Times that it is "quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11-indeed, since the end of the Cold War"). There are a number of troubling inconsistencies if not downright contradictions in this behemoth treatise.
For instance, Bobbitt spends much time arguing that the term "war" is appropriate, but without considering properly the best argument for discarding the term, which the US homeland security chief, among others, has recently accepted-namely that "war" is what the terrorists want (as Bobby Sands wanted convicted IRA prisoners to be prisoners of war). They welcome it because it elevates them above the common criminal.
In another section, Bobbitt dissects the arguments for and against torture and concludes that while there should be an absolute ban on all torture, coercive measures are justified against those holding strategic information, but coercive measures short of inflicting extreme pain. He suggests that such procedures should be subjected to public consent. Despite this condition, this still …