The Book of the Week: Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century

Alex Danchev finds law and war are indivisible

June 12, 2008

Philip Bobbitt is a latter-day philosophe. He has intellectual reach and ethical purpose. He vaults magnificently over the toiling underlabourers in the garden of knowledge. His work is a kind of encyclopedie, a sight-reading of the state of the world: a summation of theoretical understanding, an adumbration of possible futures, an explication of moral improvement.

His books are not books of the common sort. They are more like treatises (the conclusion of this one is entitled "A plague treatise for the twenty-first century") to enlighten the purblind and the perplexed. They break all the rules. Terror and Consent, even more than its predecessor The Shield of Achilles (2002), is unwieldy, audacious, erudite, oracular, sometimes a little messianic, yet worldly-wise, policy-rich, chock-full of ends and means, gospels and doctrines, strategies and scenarios. Its author pulls off a considerable feat: he is at once hard-nosed and humane.

Bobbitt is the very opposite of a vulgariser. He is for a mature debate in a mature democracy, and he makes heavy demands on the reader. He bandies words such as "predation" and "claviger"; deploying the term "hegemon", he thinks nothing of tossing in a footnote, "of course I am using Thucydides' understanding of this term, not Gramsci's". He traffics in everything from Parmenides' Fallacy to Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness (volume 1).

Auden's Caliban speaks of "the academic fields to be guarded with umbrella and learned periodical against the trespass of any unqualified stranger not a whit less jealously than the game-preserve is protected from the poacher by the unamiable shot-gun". Bobbitt eats learned periodicals for breakfast. Turf wars are perhaps the only wars that do not interest him. He tramples the bounds with exquisite courtesy and splendid disregard for pettifogging convention. He yokes security and constitutionality, ethics and efficacy, poetry and history, Caliban and Taleban. He teaches that the traditional distinction between war and law is a false one - in fact, a 20th-century one - a symptom of "disciplinary segregation" that is both unhelpful and outmoded. The "Wars Against Terror" (WAT), in his parlance, must be interdisciplinary. We are at war, he insists, but not as we know it. The WAT propose a radical recasting of the WOT, the "War on Terror", a bankrupt construct peddled by a feeble-minded Administration. According to Bobbitt, the wars of the 21st century will not be like "the long war" of the 20th century (1914-90): not industrial, national, positional or attritional; nor a matter of facing down the familiar foe, the bomb-throwing anarchist, the national liberationist, the publicity-seeking terrorist. Rather, the coming wars will be waged in three arenas, against three threats - the phenomenon of globalised, networked terrorism; the proliferation and "commodification" of weapons of mass destruction (which sooner or later the terrorists will acquire); and the increasing vulnerability of civilian populations to all manner of humanitarian crises. It is the "looming combination" or interaction of these threats, Bobbitt argues, that will precipitate a deep crisis and what he calls an epochal war - something akin to a Thirty Years' War - of which the recent skirmishes in Afghanistan and Iraq may be curtain-raiser and harbinger. This, in turn, is connected to a vision of the global constitutional order in flux, as the nation state evolves into what Bobbitt calls the market state - his master concept. This argument is reciprocal, multilayered and densely interwoven. In tacit acknowledgement of a certain parsimony, he has the habit of recapitulating in so many words throughout the book.

One of these passages goes like this: "The rise of market states has prompted the emergence of 21st-century networked terrorism, and the potential for arming these terrorist networks with WMD, and an increasing vulnerability to disasters of various origins. The Wars Against Terror are a response to the evolution of these threats (including the opportunity they present to states of terror), and these threats are themselves driving the growth of market states in part because they are so damaging to the legitimacy of nation states. The outcome of these wars will determine whether this new constitutional order - the market state - will be composed of states of consent or states of terror."

Whether or not one swallows the complete scenario - Bobbitt is sold on scenarios - his emphasis on the concatenation of threats is surely prescient. Significantly, his attention is fixed on the terror, not the terrorists. "It hardly matters whether the forces of destruction arise from militant Islam, North Korean communism, or Caribbean hurricanes." Or, we may add, Burmese cyclones and Chinese earthquakes. In recent weeks, we have witnessed a Bobbitt-like scenario unfolding in Burma, in particular, as the military authorities not only rejected humanitarian intervention but allegedly appropriated supplies from the World Food Programme for themselves, while the international community agonised over the theory and practice of unilateral action: intervention without invitation, in this instance against the express wishes of the regime. The emerging doctrine of "the responsibility to protect" might avail the decapitated or the disappeared, but evidently not the "disastered". Bobbitt thinks we should go further, and that going further involves the reconceptualisation of humanitarian intervention as an integral part of the wars against terror.

Burma is an exemplary state of terror. For Bobbitt, such a state can never be sovereign. Resistance to it is legitimate and so is intervention. The international community should act accordingly; that is to say, make law and war according to these principles. The proper focus of the WAT is not killing terrorists but protecting civilians: not attrition but "preclusion", as Bobbitt puts it. The market states' terms for victory may be defined as precluding terror - preventing attacks on civilian populations and safe-guarding them from catastrophic harm, however caused. The emphasis here is consonant with the message of The Utility of Force (2005), by General Sir Rupert Smith, a work of exceptional clarity, much admired by Bobbitt: "War as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs, industrial war - such war no longer exists. We are now engaged, constantly and in many permutations, in war amongst the people."

Terror and Consent is a banquet of a book, and it is clear that Bobbitt wished it bigger. There is an extravagance to the presentation, amply demonstrated in a brief "coda" citing Smith, Kierkegaard, Deuteronomy 30:19 (King James version), Churchill and Grant Gilmore, and concluding: "Every constitutional order evokes a unique form of terrorism. In Heaven, there will be no terror, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. In Hell, there will be nothing but terror, and every generation unto the last will proffer its lambs."

Perhaps there is also a certain self-regard. It may be justified. As seer and scholar in this realm, Bobbitt is without peer. Osama bin Laden's acts are worse than crimes, he remarks, they are high politics. Terror and Consent is a work of high style on high politics. It is the most penetrating rethinking of these cardinal questions yet to appear. So rich is it, and so fundamental, that it will take time to absorb. Specialists will be feasting on it for years to come. Meanwhile it will surely find its place on Barack Obama's bedside table.


Philip Bobbitt has spent half his life travelling the world and half his life in Washington DC working for the Government, but he still lives on the Texan street he grew up on.

An expert on constitutional law, he has won many accolades and has worked at Oxford, Yale, Princeton, King's College London, Harvard, Columbia and Texas.

In Government, he has served as associate counsel to the President, the counsellor on international law at the State Department, legal counsel to the Senate Iran-Contra Committee, as well as various senior positions at the National Security Council.

But a life in law was not his first ambition. After his first degree at Princeton, he moved to New York intending to become a playwright. After a year spent "with a group of writers talking about writing without writing anything", he started a law degree at Yale, where he edited the Yale Law Journal.

In 1990, after years of effort, he endowed the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. Awarded biennially by the Library of Congress, it is the only prize given by the nation for poetry. He says that getting the right people motivated was tough: "There are people who believe that poetry is peripheral. People like that are like tourists who criticise somewhere they've never visited."

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

By Philip Bobbitt
Allen Lane
ISBN 9780713997842
Published 29 May 2008

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