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Books of The Times

In a Changing World, an Ever-Evolving Terrorism



May 9, 2008



The Wars for the Twenty-First Century

By Philip Bobbitt

672 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.


When the Barbary pirates were in their prime, they were paid homage and protection money by every major shipping nation. In the 17th and 18th centuries these northern African corsairs, many of whom traced their ancestry to the Muslims expelled from Spain, seized privately owned ships, demanding ransom, selling captives into slavery and compelling conversions to Islam.

By 1794, after the pirates decided that the United States was worthy of attention, they had captured 11 American ships and held 119 hostages. As president, John Adams authorized the payment of tribute; by 1800, $2 million had been paid. When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams, he pursued a more successful course of confrontation.

In current parlance the pirates were terrorists, since they sought to instill terror in innocent victims to further their own ends. But as Philip Bobbitt points out in his powerful, dense and brilliant new book, “Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century,” in the late 18th century they were also quite different from the terrorists we now know. They resembled the type of “territorial states” they preyed upon. Emulating them, the pirates demarcated their terrain, humiliated their nemeses and copied “the mercantile, cynical manners of the era.”

That style of terror, Mr. Bobbitt argues, was far different from the kind practiced by the 20th-century Irish Republican Army, which in turn was far different from the tactics of 21st-century Al Qaeda.

But in each case, Mr. Bobbitt suggests, the ambitions and techniques of an era’s terrorist groups reflected the states they were confronting. He does not mean these to be symmetries like those implied by the assertion that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Mr. Bobbitt, who teaches law at the University of Texas and Columbia University and directs the Center for National Security at Columbia — and who has held positions in six United States administrations — is too subtle to accept a formulation that has become little more than a relativist mantra.

Mr. Bobbitt’s broad perspective grows out of his 2002 work “The Shield of Achilles” (Knopf), which presents a magisterial theory on how the evolution of the state — from the princely states of the Renaissance to the modern nation-state and beyond — led to a corresponding change in the nature of warfare. That survey reached its climax in the “Long War” — what Mr. Bobbitt calls the two World Wars and the cold war — in which nations wrestled over which governing ideology would hold sway, with Fascism and Communism ultimately defeated by “parliamentary democracy.”

Now Mr. Bobbitt has focused on the newly forming world he began to explore in that earlier volume. A fresh interpretation of terrorism, he insists, is urgently needed.

So different is contemporary terrorism from its ancestors, he suggests, and so distinct are the kinds of battles that will take place that “it will take some time before the nature and composition of these wars are widely understood.” And wars, he insists, are what they should be called. He writes: “We will not win the Wars against Terror if we do not understand the novelty of the problem we face.”

He argues that misunderstandings of the situation have led to a flawed American strategy in Iraq, to moral failings in the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and to a risk of militarizing American domestic life. But Mr. Bobbitt also says that accurate perceptions lay behind the very impulse to call this struggle a “war on terror.” He sees in modern terrorism “a threat to mankind that is unprecedented” and predicts that in facing it, more changes will come than during the Long War.

Mr. Bobbitt explains that in the 20th century the nation-state obtained its legitimacy by guaranteeing the well-being of its people, under varied ideologies like Communism and democracy. The “terrorists of the nation state,” as he calls them, wished to undo that order in the name of “national liberation.”

Such “nation state terrorism” led to the idea that terrorists were essentially freedom fighters. An alphabet soup of terrorist groups, including the I.R.A. and P.L.O., defined themselves around such ambitions.

Similar groups still exist, of course, but the ascendancy now is with Al Qaeda and its ilk. They are not interested in national liberation or mercantile success. They seek to break down the established order of states and enthrone another form of authority (overseen by Islamic jihadists). Such groups are global and decentralized, prepared to “outsource” their attacks and readily trade weaponry and secrets. In all this, Mr. Bobbitt argues, they are warped images of a new kind of state, of which the United States and the European Union are prime examples: the “market state.”

Such a state defines its main ambition not as seeking the well-being of its people, but as maximizing the opportunities it offers its citizens. The very notion of globalization developed to explain the market state’s range and impact. And in the new world in which communications networks and market forces are entangled, the battle is joined.

There are consequences to these new formations. Contemporary terrorist groups, Mr. Bobbitt shows, are far less concerned with the death of innocents than their predecessors; they are not seeking to sway public opinion, but to expand their domain of terror. Weapons of mass destruction become so much more threatening because traditional ideas of deterrence have less sway — and this at the very moment when the global marketplace offers frightening options.

But when facing this new market-state world, we often mistakenly apply the older nation-state model, which blinds us to both opportunities and dangers. Mr. Bobbitt traces many of the early errors in Iraq to a misconception that the confrontation was a traditional battle between nation-states.

Similar misconceptions, he argues, are at the root of the idea that terrorism could possibly be controlled by police action; in such an approach the need to anticipate and preclude terrorist action, rather than punish it, is overlooked. Even the structure of intelligence agencies, Mr. Bobbitt argues, is a relic of the battles last fought.

“As long as we continue to think in twentieth century, nation state terms,” he writes, “we will not be able to develop doctrines and capabilities” appropriate for new threats.

In his view those threats strike at the foundation of the modern state, seeking to affect its policies and structure. They attempt to replace an authority that derives from the “consent of the governed” with a condition of fear and horror, transforming a “state of consent” into a “a state of terror.” That makes Mr. Bobbitt adamant that the United States demand more of itself, championing the very rule of law that terrorists seek to overturn. This is an advocacy that he finds lacking in the conflicting regulations and extraterritorial prisons the United States established after 9/11.

He acknowledges that the task will not be easy. Once-helpful distinctions become useless. Police action and military force, disaster relief and strategic operations, domestic investigations and international espionage: boundaries have already started to disappear. The Wars on Terror will also require the state to deal with mass catastrophe whatever its cause; hurricanes will demand the same humanitarian skills and strategic foresight as an explosion of a dirty bomb.

So Mr. Bobbitt shifts the paradigm for understanding terrorism. The challenges posed by the conflict become more clear but also more daunting as he illuminates them. He barely begins to address the more knotty particulars: how to overcome the lifelong support for terror that so skews Palestinian opinion, or how to reformulate international laws when international institutions are inadequate and unreliable. He is also more confident than I am that a shift in the approach of the United States to the world order will sufficiently inspire international change. But there is so much to think about in this book that the disagreements it inspires are part of its value.

There is also a tragic consciousness overshadowing it, evident in the fragments of poetry Mr. Bobbitt cites throughout. He quotes St. Augustine, calling the looming task “mournful work”: “sustaining relative good in the face of greater evil.” 

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