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A Larger War on Terror?

The United States of America is fighting a war against terrorists of global reach. The enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism—premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.

The National Security Strategy of the United States, September 2002


When historians reflect on the Bush administration’s legacy, the “war on terror” will almost certainly be its most important feature. That “war,” declared by the President shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has defined the administration in its relations both to the rest of the world and to its own people at home. In the name of the “war on terror,” the administration has invaded and occupied two countries, implemented a single-minded and often unilateral foreign policy, asserted unprecedented executive power, and sought to justify a host of human rights violations, from disappearances to torture.

The “war on terror” has received extensive criticism. Our European allies maintain that waging war against terrorists—much less against “terror” itself—is a category mistake; terrorism should be treated as a law enforcement matter. Declaring war elevates criminals into warriors, thereby playing into the terrorists’ desire for renown. In the United States, many accept the use of military force as a response to the al-Qaeda attacks but reject the notion that this is a global war on all forms of terrorism, or on all terrorist organizations of global reach. Terrorism, it is said, is not an enemy, but a tactic, and one that will be with us forever, so declaring war on terror commits us to an unending and unwinnable war.

Many others insist that the war against al-Qaeda, centered in Afghanistan and the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan, must be distinguished from the Iraq war, launched not in self- defense in response to an armed attack but for asserted “preventive” purposes, to stop Saddam Hussein before he gave (what turned out to be nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction to terrorists to use against us. Finally, many have argued that any military response must conform to the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions, which from the outset the administration dismissed as quaint and obsolete.

In Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt, a distinguished law professor at Columbia Law School and former national security official in the Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, takes on the daunting task of salvaging the war on terror. No apologist for George W. Bush, Bobbitt justly castigates the current administration for treating international law as an inconvenient obstacle to be thrust aside in the pursuit of parochial interests. And he deserves much credit for moving beyond crude rhetorical appeals to fear and attempting to construct a comprehensive intellectual justification for a war that has often seemed more an unthinking reflex than a considered policy response. But in theory, Bobbitt supports much of what the administration has done, including ousting Saddam Hussein from Iraq, coercive interrogation of terror suspects, warrantless spying by the National Security Agency, and extensive mining of computer data such as the Total Information Awareness program, run by Admiral John Poindexter for the Defense Department until Congress barred any public funding for it in 2003. He vigorously defends the concept of a war on terror, or as he puts it, hardly distinguishing himself from the administration, the “Wars against Terror.”

Where Bush has invoked simplistic images of “evil men in caves,” Bobbitt quotes Thucydides, Hobbes, Shakespeare, Hardy, and Wis awa Szymborska, among many others, as he seeks to situate the conflict with al-Qaeda in a grand if idiosyncratic narrative of the historical evolution of the state and its enemies. At the center of this story is the opposition between what Bobbitt calls “states of consent” and “states of terror”:

States of consent govern on the basis of authority freely derived from the unfettered consent of the governed, authority that must be regularly and frequently renewed and that can be withdrawn; states of terror govern by means of repression and are not bound by the freely given decision of the public….

Bobbitt maintains that the defining struggle of the twenty-first century will pit “market states of consent,” such as the United States and the European Union, against global terrorist organizations. He insists that we have no choice but to fight the “Wars against Terror,” because the terrorists are already at war with us—over nothing less than the constitution of the future.

Terror and Consent is nothing if not ambitious. Bobbitt opens his 672-page book by boldly asserting that “almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about twenty-first century terrorism and its relationship to the Wars against Terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought.” But many of Bobbitt’s proposals are surprisingly conventional. He advocates stronger efforts to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; improvements in our ability to recover from catastrophes, whether natural or man-made; more extensive use of computer data and other forms of surveillance to identify and track terrorists; reform of international law to reflect the asymmetrical nature of modern warfare, in which insurgent groups often use illegal tactics; and respect for human rights and the rule of law. Many of those suggestions are sensible; but they are hardly unconventional, and one is left wondering what his grand vision of history adds to the conventional wisdom he claims to reject but often appears to echo. Where he is at his most unconventional—in defending coercive interrogation and “preventive war,” and in reimagining world history to salvage his conception of the “Wars against Terror”—he is least persuasive.


As Bobbitt sees it, the twenty-first century will be defined by the transformation from “nation-states” to “market states,” and how we respond to terrorism will play a central part in the character of that transformation. According to Bobbitt, nation-states, the dominant form of the state during the twentieth century, served their people by seeking to provide for their welfare. Economic and technological developments in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however, limit any individual nation’s effective control over the economic and political realities it confronts, and therefore undermine its ability to assure its citizens’ welfare.

As a result, Bobbitt contends, states such as the United States and the EU are in the process of becoming “market states,” whose function is not to provide welfare but to maximize citizens’ “opportunities through market-bred strategies”:

Poverty is to be alleviated by providing the poor with education and job retraining sufficient to permit them to participate fully in the labor market rather than by giving them welfare payments…. The total wealth of the society is to be maximized, which will enrich everyone to some degree, rather than enlarging the wealth of any particular group (like the poorest) through interventions in the market that tend to depress total economic performance.

The recent global credit crisis painfully confirms that individual nations are increasingly ill-equipped to protect their citizens’ welfare; but this also ought to fundamentally shake Bobbitt’s confidence in the unrestricted global “market” as a solution.

In Bobbitt’s account, the emergence of the “market state” is the latest in a series of constitutional shifts in the political organization of the state, shifts that in his previous book, The Shield of Achilles,1 he traced back to the “princely states” of the Renaissance. Each form of state, he contends, inspires its own brand of terrorist opponents. Thus, nation-states confronted terrorists—such as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatists in Spain, or the African National Congress—that had their own competing claims of national identity. Al-Qaeda, in contrast, is

a virtual state that more closely resembles the multinational franchising corporation than the centralized and militarized nation state…. This new terrorist network outsources operations; it depends on local groups to carry out warfare and pays them for it, supplying planning and infrastructure (including weapons). Like the market itself, this network is global and not territorial.

Bobbitt sees al-Qaeda as a “market state of terror,” one that governs on the principle of terror rather than consent.

Simply as description, Bobbitt’s schema seems flawed in a number of respects. First, it seems more a matter of rhetoric than reality to claim, as he does, that the epochal struggle of the twenty-first century concerns whether “consent” or “terror” will form the basis for legitimate governance. Does anyone truly believe that citizens throughout the world are undecided over whether they would prefer to be governed by consent or terror? Or that al-Qaeda, as dangerous as it is, really threatens to establish the priority of “terror” as a model of governance?

Second, Bobbitt’s depiction of al-Qaeda as a response to the development of “market states” seems off the mark. Al-Qaeda’s ideological roots lie in an extreme and twisted version of fundamentalist Islam, not an opposition to globalization and free-market strategies as such. In order to fit al-Qaeda into his vision of terror vs. consent, Bobbitt contends that al-Qaeda sees terrorism as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. This makes al-Qaeda out to be a kind of collective serial killer. But while there is little doubt that al-Qaeda is one of history’s most ruthless terrorist organizations, its many statements and manifestos make clear that its goal is not to kill for the sake of killing, or even for the sake of maintaining a reign of terror. Rather, it aims to install a caliphate, which would then rule by its own understanding of Islamic law, not pure terror.

In addition, while al-Qaeda is decentralized, has networks, and operates around the globe, such characteristics seem less a reaction to the development of “market states” than to the fact that the world is generally becoming more decentralized, globalized, and networked. It would be surprising if the conditions and technology that permit the international operation of Nabisco Foods, The New York Times, and Human Rights Watch would not also be exploited by al-Qaeda. But the fact that all organizations, political or private, are adapting to globalization hardly establishes that al-Qaeda is a “market state of terror.”

Third, Bobbitt insists, on the basis of very little evidence, that his account of terrorism is not unique to al-Qaeda, but describes a much broader historical (and seemingly inevitable) phenomenon. For example, he argues that Hezbollah has also turned “from nation-state terrorism to global, networked terrorism.” But the only evidence he cites is a statement by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that “Hezbollah is not fighting a battle for Hezbollah, or even for Lebanon. We are now fighting a battle for the [Islamic] nation.” It is unclear whether such claims truly reflect a fundamental transformation in the nature of terrorism or merely opportunistic rhetoric not dissimilar from appeals to class-based solidarity made by many twentieth-century terrorists.

Bobbitt goes even further, lumping ecoterrorists, antiglobalization terrorists, and animal rights terrorists in the same “market state terrorist” camp as al-Qaeda. Yet there is no evidence that these groups seek to use weapons of mass destruction, operate as “market states,” treat terrorism as an end rather than a means, or are qualitatively more ruthless than any number of predecessors who have used violence for political ends.

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    Knopf, 2002.

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