16 April 2008

Terror and Consent: Part One

I just finished a formidable tome called Terror and Consent: The Wars of the Twenty-first Century, written by Phillip Bobbitt. The author is a Democrat who served as an advisor in some capacity to the Clinton Administration. He's best known for writing The Shield of Achilles, a history of strategy and how it relates to changing constitutional orders over time. In his new book, Bobbitt defends the concept of a "war on terror," a venture that will make it controversial in intellectual and political circles.

Bobbitt anticipates the criticism that "you can't wage war on a tactic" and tries to deflect it by defining terror as a condition, a state of being. A "state of terror" is one in which people are deterred by violence or the threat of violence from doing what they actually have a right to do. This, he asserts, is what terrorists wish to impose on the world. It's a new aspiration for terrorists that reflects the evolution of nations from "nation states" to "market states." Al Qaeda is only the first wave of "market state terrorists" or "market states of terror," all of which will want to terrorize the whole world in order to secure for themselves freedom of action in their own part of the world or universal compliance with some ideological or religious demand.

Because he thinks the form terrorism takes is a product of the prevailing world order, Bobbitt doesn't care to elaborate on root causes of Islamic terrorism or the history of the Middle East. This seems evasive because it allows Bobbitt to fit al Qaeda into a mold of his own making. In his view, bin Laden's movement is an aggressive force positively motivated by the desire to impose sharia rather than defensively motivated in response to actual or perceived aggression by the West. He acknowledges that al Qaeda basically wants to be left alone to build a sharia Caliphate somewhere, but for Bobbitt this is an unacceptable objective.

The advent of the "market state" (which apparently favors individual opportunity over social welfare and emphasizes physical security over economic security for its citizens) seems to have brought us to a "House Divided" moment in world history. In American history, Abraham Lincoln said "a house divided against itself cannot stand." He wasn't predicting that the house would fall, but that it would cease to be divided. In the American context, that meant the U.S. would either belong to slaveholders or to free labor. He wanted to ensure that slavery was in "the course of ultimate extinction," and that commitment put him on a collision course with the slaveholders. Bobbitt doesn't mention Lincoln in this context, but echoes him in asserting that the world can't be divided between "states of terror" and "states of consent" -- the latter being those nations dedicated to democracy and/or the rule of law in the name of individual liberty. To continue the analogy, "states of consent" must be satisfied that "states of terror" are on the course of ultimate extinction, which puts the two sets of states on a collision course that leads to the "wars on Terror."

To render it plainly, "states of consent" cannot tolerate the existence of any place on earth where their citizens wouldn't be perfectly welcome or wouldn't enjoy the same individual rights they have at home. They are somehow compelled to suppress "states of terror" on the theory that their own citizens aren't secure in their rights until everyone on earth is secure in the same rights. It so happens that those rights are the ones Jefferson defined in the Declaration of Independence. Bobbitt believes in universal, individual, "inalienable" rights, and that political sovereignty depends on the consent of the governed. While he often insists that not every "state of consent" will resemble the U.S., you can't help but assume that he wouldn't object if they did.

In any event, "states of terror" or, worse, "virtual market states of terror" (e.g. al Qaeda) recognize this fundamental antipathy and are impelled to spread terror to defend themselves. The problem, as far as Bobbitt is concerned, is that "states of terror" have no right to defend themselves. The new constitutional order cannot permit "states of terror" to have the same rights as "states of consent" because their recourse to terror in self-defense illegally terrorizes citizens of states of consent, who are entitled to seek the destruction of states of terror.

It sounds a little like circular reasoning to me. We have to wage war on states of terror because they want to terrorize us so we won't wage war on them. Bobbitt himself acknowledges this problem. The major part of Terror and Consent is his attempt to forge a system of international law that would legitimize the wars on Terror so that no given war will be seen as merely an attempt by some great power to oppress a weaker but hostile force. His big beef with the Bush administration is over their apparent contempt for international law, but he meets them halfway by insisting that international law must change to reflect the new constitutional order and the new challenges of "market state terrorism." Similarly, he considers the Bushies their own worst enemies because of their obsession with secrecy and executive power, but he insists that civil libertarians must moderate their objections to new intelligence strategies because liberties are threatened more by terrorism than by surveillance.

I've taken notes on the book that I've left at my office. In Part Two of my review, I'll let Bobbitt speak for himself on some of the topics already mentioned while articulating more of my own criticisms. I'll leave the subject for now with the warning that "states of consent" might not be the most accurate label for the "market states" Bobbitt describes.

1 comment:

crhymethinc said...

The problem, as I see it, stems from the desire of a select few to force a global market economy on a mass of humanity that is far from ready to globalize.
What Mr. Bobbit seems to favour is what ought to be termed as "corporate feudalism", rather than "market states". Because that is what it comes down to...the right of multi-national corporations to do what they will in the pursuit of higher profit.