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War Plans


Published: April 13, 2008

The age of “Atlantic man” is conventionally thought to be over. Some, like Parag Khanna, foresee the rise of a “second world” to challenge American hegemony. Others, notably Fareed Zakaria, are harbingers of a “post-American world.” The rapid economic rise of China (and India) suggests to many that the geopolitical center of gravity no longer lies somewhere between Washington and London. The embarrassments of the Anglo-American “special relationship” in Iraq have encouraged others (myself among them) to predict a decline of American empire.

Philip Bobbitt, however, is homo atlanticus redux. A dapper Southerner, renowned almost as much for his sparkling literary allusions as for his acute thinking, he divides his time among Austin, Tex.; New York, where he teaches law at Columbia; and London, where he has lectured in war studies. His new book, “Terror and Consent,” is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End.

But “Terror and Consent” is much more than that readership might suggest. This is quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 — indeed, since the end of the cold war. I have no doubt it will be garlanded with prizes. It deserves to be. It is more important that it should be read, marked and inwardly digested by all three of the remaining candidates to succeed George W. Bush as president of the United States.

Bobbitt’s originality lies in his almost unique ability to synthesize three quite different traditions of scholarship. The first is history. The second is law, particularly constitutional law. The third is military strategy. This synthesis owes as much to the corridors of power as to the sequestered groves of academe. Bobbitt was an associate counsel to President Carter, legal counsel to the Senate’s Iran-Contra committee and a senior director on the National Security Council under President Clinton.

In his last book, “The Shield of Achilles” (2002), Bobbitt advanced a bold argument about the history of international relations since the time of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). His central argument was that, in the aftermath of the cold war, the traditional post-Westphalian ideal of the sovereign nation-state had become obsolescent. In the increasingly borderless world we associate with globalization, something new was emerging, which Bobbitt called (and continues to call) the “market-state.” This state’s relationship to its citizens resembles that between a corporation and consumers. Its counterpart — and enemy — is the terrorist network. The central problem raised in “The Shield of Achilles” was how far the market-state could and should go to defeat such networks, particularly when they were in some measure sponsored by traditional nation-states.

Read as a tract for the times, “The Shield of Achilles” seemed to exemplify the change in American attitudes to foreign policy that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, accelerated during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and came to a head after 9/11. Some reviewers took it to be a neoconservative work, and Bobbitt’s support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lent credence to that view. However, read as a work of history, it was no such thing. Rather, it was a reflection on the decline of national sovereignty in an age of globalization.

“Terror and Consent” is less historical; indeed, it is more concerned with the future and how best we should anticipate its challenges. Did I say “the future”? Bobbitt has learned from the scenario-builders of Royal Dutch Shell the essential point that there is really no such thing as the future — only futures (plural). The task he has set himself here is to challenge nearly all our existing ideas about the so-called wars on terror (note, once again, the plural), in the belief that only a root-and-branch rethinking will equip us to deal with the problems posed by “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mass terrorist atrocities and humanitarian crises that bring about or are brought about by terror.”

Bobbitt’s central premise is that today’s Islamic terrorist network, which he calls Al Qaeda for short, is like a distorted mirror image of the post-Westphalian market-

state: decentralized, privatized, outsourced and in some measure divorced from territorial sovereignty. The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.

The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based “terror-state” in the form of a new caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his confederates want to acquire nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. Precisely because of the nature of the market-state, as well as the actions of rogue nation-states, the key components and knowledge are very close to being available to them — witness the nuclear Wal-Mart run in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan. With such weapons, the terrorists will be able to unleash a super-9/11, with scarcely imaginable human and psychological costs.

In short, we are in a war. Those who say that you cannot fight an abstract noun have misunderstood that “terror” itself is being deployed as a weapon against us by a hostile and calculating nongovernmental organization. To refine his argument, Bobbitt introduces a distinction. Both the market-states and the nation-states of the West are democratic; they are “states of consent,” in which the rule of law exists to uphold individual liberty and rights. Our adversaries aim to replace our consent-based order with a “state of terror.”

So how should you fight terror? Like the British soldier-philosopher Rupert Smith, Bobbitt argues that the Bush administration blundered in Iraq by waging the wrong kind of war. As a victory over a suspected rogue nation-state, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a triumph. But the “war amongst the people” that then had to be waged to convert Iraq into an ally in the war on terror was a fiasco. Bush had wanted an old-style victory-with-parades. In these new wars there can be no such resolution (hence Bobbitt’s earlier coinage, “the long war,” which a more sober Bush briefly adopted).

To make matters worse, the Bush administration has seemed to glory in its contempt for the rule of law, even as it has posed as the exporter of freedom. A member of the Democratic Party (and nephew of Lyndon Johnson), Bobbitt is damning about the deficiencies of the Patriot Act, the “prison colony” at Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture and the willful evasion of existing law that has accompanied it. Yet many of his fellow Democrats (not to mention many libertarians on the right) will be stopped short by what Bobbitt says next.

Bush’s instinct was not wrong. In this war, we do need pre-emptive detention of suspected terrorists; we do need a significant increase of surveillance, particularly of electronic communications; we do need, in some circumstances, to use coercive techniques (short of torture) to elicit information from terrorists. The administration’s fatal mistake was its failure to understand that these things could be achieved by appropriate modifications of the law. By doing what indeed was needed, but doing it outside the law, the administration undermined the legitimacy of American policy at home as well as abroad. Bobbitt is emphatic: all branches of government must act in conformity with the Constitution and the law.

With lawyerly precision, Bobbitt explores the classic conundrum of the “ticking bomb”: a detainee very likely has knowledge of a concealed explosive device that, if detonated, will kill thousands. In such a case, because the ends really do justify the means, the right thing may indeed be to torture him. But doing so, Bobbitt argues, can never be legal. The torturer would have to stand trial for his action, though with the strong presumption that he would be acquitted if he had succeeded in averting a disaster. Under less extreme circumstances, Bobbitt suggests, it should be possible for government agents to use coercive methods short of torture (sleep deprivation, truth drugs), but only with the prior approval of a jury.

Nor is this all that we must do if we are to preserve security without sacrificing legality. Bobbitt argues for a radical overhaul of our intelligence system, arguing that traditional antinomies (United States citizen/foreigner, gathering/analysis, private/public) are now an obstacle to effective action. Yes, we really do need something like the abortive Total Information Awareness program, pooling every available piece of data and mining it for clues about the next 9/11. We also need to take large-scale precautions to ensure that constitutional and legal order do not break down in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Above all, we need a new foreign policy doctrine. Old doctrines like deterrence and containment are obsolete and must give way to new strategies of “preclusion” (a word that distinguishes it from the term “pre-emption” in the National Security Strategy of 2002, though the sense seems to be the same). Unilateralism must certainly be abandoned. The United States and its allies must recognize their common fate as the natural defenders of the society of states of consent, while the United States and the European Union should form a new G2, committed to a post-Westphalian notion of sovereignty, yet assuring that their overseas interventions are governed by a new instrument of international law.

In a superbly intelligent chapter, Bobbitt concedes that his vision will not be easy to realize. There is what he calls a “triage of terror,” because pre-emptive action against one threat may exacerbate another (for example, an attack on a state sponsor of terror may encourage other states to seek weapons of mass destruction as insurance, undermining the already frail system of nonproliferation). There is still the danger, too, that a far worse war than the war on terror could occur if the newly emergent market-states of the East come into conflict with those in the West.

Only one point seems to elude Bobbitt, and that is what seems to me to be the great defect of any pre-emptive action by a democratic regime: the electoral rewards for success are slight because the public finds it hard to be grateful for a nonevent. Retaliation, by contrast, is a surefire vote-winner. That is a major difficulty, I think, since the United States can scarcely be an effective “claviger” (key bearer) and “steward” of the states of consent if its executive cannot secure enduring domestic consent for its “preclusive” actions.

To summarize: Bobbitt believes that there is a real war against terror; that civil liberties as previously understood may need to be curtailed to win it; that we must nevertheless fight it without violating our commitment to the rule of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone. This is certainly not a combination of positions calculated to endear Bobbitt either to the left or the right in the United States today.

Yet it is striking that, despite being a Democrat, Philip Bobbitt so often echoes the arguments made by John McCain on foreign policy. He sees the terrorist threat as deadly serious. He is willing to fight it. But he wants to fight it within the law, and with our traditional allies.

Perhaps — who knows? — this brilliant book may also be an application for the post of national security adviser. In times of war, stranger bedfellows have been known than a Democratic Texas lawyer and a Republican Arizona soldier.

Niall Ferguson is a professor at Harvard University and Harvard Business School, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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