Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading :: Terror and Consent

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

I've been meaning to review this book for months, but have been very busy - and the book is so thick that it needs some time to review. You may remember that I reviewed Bobbitt's impressive book The Shield of Achilles a while back. Terror and Consent is his follow-up effort, in which he attempts to examine terrorism in terms of the constitutional change he described in his previous book. That is, he sees present-day terrorism and its practitioners as a reaction to the ongoing shift from the nation-state to the market-state.

I'm far from being an expert on terrorism or fourth-generation warfare, so you may want to see some thoughts on Bobbitt's work by people who are: David Ronfeldt and John Robb (link goes to Robb's two-star review). Go read those, then come back.

Are you back? Okay, great. My short take is that this book is not as solid or groundbreaking as The Shield of Achilles, but it is still well worth reading if you're interested in how that previous book's thesis plays out when extended to terrorism. Ronfeldt disputes one aspect of that thesis (that we are currently in the transition to a market-state) and Robb disputes at least two others (that the market-state is a constitutional order and that terrorism is an illegitimate reaction to that order). Keep these fundamental objections in mind as you read the book; I'm going to start out by playing by Bobbitt's rules, then circle around to discuss the objections toward the end of this review.

Bobbitt begins by arguing that "the objective of these wars [against terror] is not the conquest of territory or the silencing of any particular ideology but rather to secure the environment necessary for states of consent and to make it impossible for our enemies to impose or induce states of terror. The source of these wars is not Islam but rather a fundamental change in the nature of the State and its evolving relationship to the new methods, purposes, and technologies of warfare" (p.3). As Bobbitt says elsewhere in the book, the "war on terror" is not a misplaced metaphor - it's not a metaphor at all (p.173). These wars against terrorism, he argues, must involve three efforts: preempting attacks by global terrorist networks; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and protecting civilians against "natural catastrophes and nonnatural assaults" (p.3). That last item may seem odd, but as Bobbitt argues, we're entering an age in which we may not be able to distinguish between natural catastrophes and terrorism (think in terms of biological warfare) and natural disasters may be used as multipliers for the effects of terrorism. In any case, "relieving the suffering and devastation that would be caused by such disasters [genocide, earthquakes, pandemics, tidal waves, hurricanes] calls on many of the same resources as the efforts against terrorism and proliferation" (p.3). Furthermore, he says, the most important feature of terrorist attacks is that "we often will not know their authors and must act in a condition of great uncertainty" (p.4).

This book, Bobbitt says, isn't about the root causes of terrorism but rather about whether the current change in the constitutional order "will result in the triumph of states of consent or states of terror" (p.4). Terror is a crucial test of the market-state, he says, because terrorism challenges the very basis of that constitutional order (p.12). To develop that argument, in Chapter 1, Bobbitt reviews the history of constitutional orders that he discussed in The Shield of Achilles, matching each order with the corresponding form of terrorism: Crusaders, buccaneers, pirates, anarchists, and national liberation movements all make an appearance here as counters to their corresponding constitutional orders. And in the advent of the market-state, based on the principle of maximizing opportunities for the individual, we also see the advent of a terrorism that uses market-state methods to negate individual choice (p.44). "Market state terrorism will be just as global, networked, decentralized, and devolved and rely on just as much outsourcing and incentivizing as the market state," Bobbitt argues (p.45), sounding a bit like Robb. al Qaeda, which Bobbitt sees as a transitional response, is better financed than its predecessors (p.49), quick to outsource local operations (p.50), and structured in a way that represents VISA or Mastercard organizational charts (p.51). (In fact, Bobbitt argues, Osama bin Laden's lasting legacy will be his organizational innovations (p.52)). One major differentiator is that market-state terrorism is no longer a technique, but an end in itself (p.62).

Bobbitt concludes that al Qaeda can be regarded as either a market-state terrorist group or a virtual market-state (p.65). It's "like a mutant nongovernmental organization" (p.84). AQ's strategic goal is constitutional, he says, and thus a counterterror approach must tightly coordinate strategy and law (p.70).

In Chapter 2, Bobbitt continues this argument by reminding us that the constitutional order is the unique grounds upon which the State claims legitimate power. The nation-state gained legitimacy from improving the material conditions of citizens (p.86). The market-state, in turn, says: give us power and we will give you new opportunities (p.88). In a footnote, Bobbitt takes a shot at the belief that terrorism is caused by economic deprivation: that argument, he says, rests on nation-state assumptions and "have nothing to say to al Qaeda or ecoterrorists or animal-rights terrorists or even those antiglobalization terrorists who are aroused more by the threat to cultural identity than by unfair terms of trade" (p.91).

Bobbitt goes on to describe the rise of AQ Khan's network for assembling and selling nuclear bomb-making capabilities, citing Gordon Corera's book. As he tells the story, Khan assembled a market for bombs that overlaid the state but escaped state control. (He doesn't spend much time discussing Khan's nationalistic motivations, which came through so clearly in Corera's book.)

In Chapter 3, Bobbitt returns to the question: is al Qaeda just a terrorist network or is it a virtual market-state? He suggests that it is both, and that states of terror will have different valences just as nation-states did (p.126). If we accept terrorist networks as adversaries in war, the 20th century emphasis on war vs. crime is an artifact of that era's separation of law vs. strategy (p.140). Whereas in earlier wars the objective was to kill the enemy, in the 21st century, the preferred outcome is to temporarily disable the soldier without killing (p.152). (Contrast that statement with the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this year and the Obama administration's increased use of Predator drones for remotely killing enemies.)  

In Chapter 4, Bobbitt goes on to discuss the question of victory over terror. States of consent don't need to win, he says - they simply need to not lose (p.183) in order to steadily expand the zones of consent (p.213). That means hardening infrastructure, preempting, and preventing (p.213). This, Bobbitt says, is the way to win a preclusive victory, the kind of victory that characterizes the era of the market-state (p.213). In interventions, the mission is not to establish democracy, but to legitimize the rule of law (p.221). One contrast he provides is in how the US handled Hurricane Katrina vs. how it handled the 2004 tsunami in Sumatra (pp.222-226). Later in the book, he suggests several measures to better reconcile law and strategy in governmental responses to threats, including repealing the Posse Comitatus Act and mandating a national ID (pp.417-418).

Anyway, let's stop here; I think that gives the gist of the book, and the rest is details. Bobbitt is very concerned that without careful reforms, emerging market-states will be hamstrung by the nation-state separation between law and strategy, and may damage their own legitimacy by either bending the rules to become more responsive or following the rules and responding inadequately. He outlines several such reforms.

Now to the objections. As I mentioned earlier, Ronfeldt disputes one aspect of that thesis (that we are currently in the transition to a market-state). I think that perhaps the distance between the two is not as wide as it appears here, with Bobbitt seeing networks (such as terrorist networks) as characteristic of the market-state rather than succeeding it. On the other hand, I don't think that Bobbitt has worked out some of the details of the networked form of organization to which Ronfeldt refers. Certainly some of the stronger measures that Bobbitt suggests (such as the national ID) seem like hierarchical reactions to networked organizations rather than what we might expect from a network solution. Again, I commend you to Ronfeldt for more on this question.

From another direction, Robb disputes at least two other assumptions that Bobbitt makes: that the market-state is a constitutional order and that terrorism is an illegitimate reaction to that order. Robb does offer a powerful critique here, providing examples of asymmetrical warfare that seeks to (or claims to seek to) maximize individual choice against states that seek to take it away. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Robb has not been reluctant to point the finger at states that have been hollowed out by a runaway market. I don't think that's quite what Bobbitt had in mind, but nevertheless, the picture is more messy (transitional?) than Bobbitt offers.

Nevertheless, I recommend the book - along with the critiques. Bobbitt has thought deeply about the issues and taken the time to develop cogent critiques and offer concrete proposals. They're well worth reading, if only as a way to sharpen your own thinking on these matters and to develop your own counterproposals. But definitely read The Shield of Achilles first.

(discuss the objections)

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