Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century
By Philip Bobbitt
Knopf, 672 pp., $35
Philip Bobbitt has been thinking broadly, deeply and innovatively about war for a long time. Six years ago, he published a massive book called "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History." More than one reviewer called the book magisterial. Summarizing that work in a sentence seemed daunting then, and still is. In that book, Bobbitt examined the impact of war on nation-states from just about every angle imaginable.
He builds on that book in his equally massive new work, "Terror and Consent." This tale takes into account the oft-cited war on terror being waged by President George W. Bush's administration and other governments since Sept. 11, 2001. But Bobbitt would never fall into simplistic verbal traps in the manner of the administration's extremely zealous but personally above-the-fray war planners. Although sometimes supportive of the Bush administration in this new book, Bobbitt grasps how every war yields ugly consequences, some unintended, and how the falsehoods emanating from the White House and the Pentagon cannot change reality.
Bobbitt has a sweeping grasp of international relations and surely works out some of his cogent arguments while traveling between jobs and homes. His biography says he teaches law at Columbia University and also lectures at the University of Texas in Austin. He lives part-time in each of those locales, plus London. (He earned his doctorate from Oxford University.) In addition, Bobbitt has spent time in Washington, D.C., advising policymakers at the White House, the Senate, the State Department, and the National Security Council.
Whatever the war on terror is and is not at this point, it consists of more than demonizing radical Islamists, Bobbitt knows. Complicit are what he calls "market states" (including the United States) that diminish what used to be considered obligatory national governmental functions, such as providing welfare for the downtrodden, ensuring health care for the ill, regulating greedy corporations, plus assuring a military based on volunteering and conscription rather than on armed guards and support staff supplied by profiteering private contractors.
In Bobbitt's complex schematic, market states have partially destabilized themselves by participating in the movement of weapons to shaky governments and, perplexingly, to renegade groups fighting those unstable regimes. It seems logical that such weapons transactions would come back to haunt the sellers and the enablers of those sellers in the Western democracies.
Portions of the book are not theoretical, but rather offer journalistic passages, usually conveying bad news. For example, discussing the likelihood of terrorist success in striking their targets, Bobbitt explains how the foes' ability to move physically and digitally across borders makes it easier for them to plan their attacks as well as to escape prosecution.
Bobbitt posits solutions, at least partial ones, for this dangerous reality, but they are grounded in theory that requires a close reading page after page, chapter after chapter, section after section. His solutions suggest that, even if they were put into practice, would not lead to short-term miracles. The old-fashioned US government strategy meant to contain existing international threats through nuclear and other weapons-dependent pressures cannot morph into preclusion of those threats without new thinking, and without building international alliances based on trust.
The future holds so many options, commented upon smartly by Bobbitt, that an adequate summary of his thinking resists cataloguing. So, here is one offering, in Bobbitt's words, that strikes me as perhaps the most appropriate for generalists considering whether to begin reading this intellectually stimulating but complex and challenging book:
"In earlier centuries, liberationist, secessionist, and other political groups have used terror to gain or keep state power. In the twentieth century, terrorists did not customarily challenge the idea or the inevitability of the system of sovereign nation states; rather, they used violence to keep or to acquire power within that system. Terrorism represented national and nationalist ambitions, pitting established powers against nascent ones who wished to control or create states.
"In the twenty-first century, terrorism presents a different face. It is global, not national; it is decentralized and networked in its operations like a mutant nongovernmental organization or a multinational corporation; it does not resemble the centralized and hierarchical bureaucracy of a nation state . . . It will operate in the international marketplace of weapons, targets, personnel, information, media influence, and persuasion, not in the national arenas of revolution and policy reform . . . The greatest difference, however, will lie in the potential combination of a global terror network and access to weapons of mass destruction . . . This looming intersection of an innovative organization and a novel means of terror will require a fundamental rethinking of conventional doctrines in international security and foreign policy."
Bobbitt has provided a head start on that "fundamental rethinking."
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist whose new book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."