A Manual for Our Times

By Matthew d' Ancona | The Spectator, May 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Manual for Our Times


Matthew d' Ancona, The Spectator


TERROR AND CONSENT: THE WARS FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Philip Bobbitt Allen Lane, £25, pp. 672, ISBN 9780713997842 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

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 21stcentury 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 militarytechnological revolution -- all ardently sought innovations that won the Long War of the 20th century. …

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