Philip Bobbitt: you’re either with him or against him

Terror and Consent has been hailed as a profound treatise on terrorism. In truth, it rehashes the paranoia and authoritarianism of the ‘war on terror’ and writes off anyone who dares to disagree with its thesis.

Philip Cunliffe

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Terror and Consent is the latest book by Philip Bobbitt, the American constitutional theorist who has served various Republican and Democratic administrations, and has now sought to position himself as one of America’s leading theorists on warfare and strategy in the twenty-first century.

According to Bobbitt, each age has a distinctive constitutional framework that structures its global political life. Each of these political structures in turn throws up individuals and organisations that seek to negate the prevailing political order, while also being shaped by it. So the age of early modern states and colonial expansion had its pirates and buccaneers, while today we have Osama and al-Qaeda.

New constitutional orders require new types of strategy – this is the premise of Bobbitt’s approach. The leaders who directed the 2003 invasion of Iraq have championed Bobbitt, with his ideas earning praise from ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair and former Australian prime minister John Howard.

Terror and Consent is billed as offering a profound rethinking of everything that is widely believed about the ‘war on terror’. Bobbitt tries to do this by claiming to confront head-on some of the common challenges raised against the war on terror – for instance, the claim that it’s not possible to wage war on a tactic (terror), that terrorism is best tackled by law enforcement agencies rather than armies, that terrorists will not be able to acquire weapons of mass destruction, that fighting terrorism is a distraction from gritty realpolitik, and so on.

In tackling these ideas, Bobbitt hopes to arm America and its Western allies with the intellectual understanding and strategic outlook necessary to win the war. Unfortunately, however, Bobbitt only ends up repeating platitudes about contemporary warfare in a long-winded and grandiloquent way, puffed up with irrelevant and misunderstood history.

Far from offering an original case, Bobbitt simply reaffirms much of the reactionary case made for the war on terror, deploying his theories to justify the paranoiac scenarios used to trample on civil liberties and launch invasions. His tactic of rebuttal is to go through common arguments against the war on terror and assert that they are wrong because their authors have not theoretically grasped the new world order. In other words, they’re wrong because they don’t subscribe to Bobbitt’s theory.

This is a wider problem with Bobbitt’s whole argument: if you are not convinced by Bobbitt’s theory, there is nothing in his argument that compels you to accept it even in part, or to accept the criticisms that he makes of others. Bobbitt simply lays out his theory, and finds every other idea wanting by comparison.

There is little convincing about Bobbitt’s theory either. He claims that under the pressures of globalisation, we are moving from a world of nation states to a world of what he terms ‘market states’. Instead of maximising the collective welfare of the nation as a whole, states today are tasked with empowering individuals and nudging them in the right direction to make the right choices. As should be obvious, there is nothing here to justify the claims about the profound new insights offered by Bobbitt’s theory. The ‘end-of-the-nation-state’ has been rehearsed many times before.

Bobbitt then further divides his market states into ‘states of consent’ and ‘states of terror’. It’s obvious who the states of consent are – us, the good guys, the West. ‘States of terror’ don’t sound very nice, but what does it mean to call decrepit and poverty-stricken regimes like those in Burma and North Korea ‘states of terror’? Beyond the crass propaganda value, it isn’t clear what analytical insight is provided by Bobbitt’s labels.

One advantage that Bobbitt’s theory does offer, however, is that it relieves him of the task of having to make persuasive arguments. For example, when he says that globalised terrorists are to modern liberal societies what totalitarianism was to the twentieth century, he doesn’t have to weigh up or assess evidence for his claim. Nor does he have to explain exactly why modern societies are in danger of implosion from terror attacks. This is because he has built these assumptions into his theory from the start: Bobbitt defines our (allegedly) globalised, networked societies as being uniquely vulnerable to globalised networks of terrorists – hence we have to give the benefit of the doubt to every paranoid scenario our leaders conjure up.

Globalisation is the term that allows every vague prospect and dim threat to be inflated into an overwhelming menace. Take Bobbitt’s discussion of al-Qaeda: the fact that it is a globalised network allows Bobbitt to attribute all sorts of mysterious powers to it. The fact that al-Qaeda has no political structure to speak of, no clear political goal or means of formulating policy, can be ignored – because it is globalised. Whatever al-Qaeda is doing, whether it is detonating bombs or not, can be attributed to the infinite cunning and adaptability of those shimmering global networks.

Osama bin Laden’s pompous video messages, plagiarised from the latest Western fad (as Brendan O’Neill has shown elsewhere on spiked), are transformed into masterpieces of diplomacy. Obscure internet chatroom discussions between fantasists and losers are turned into great strategic debates. Given its ponderous pace and portentous tone, it is difficult to imagine that even Bobbitt’s most intelligent admirers, let alone Blair and Howard, have actually bothered to pursue any of his arguments to their logical conclusion. At 672 pages, Bobbitt’s tome is likely to be displayed on a bookshelf to give the impression of gravitas to aimless political leaders more than it is likely to enlighten anyone. For those not already inclined to agree with Bobbitt, the book has little to offer.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about it here, and buy the book here.

Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century, by Philip Bobbitt, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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