Biggest Think

Reviewed by Daniel Byman
Sunday, April 20, 2008


The Wars for the Twenty-first Century

By Philip Bobbitt

Knopf. 672 pp. $35

Philip Bobbitt thinks big. His latest book, Terror and Consent, even gently criticizes Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and Francis Fukuyama's End of History as "not big enough." Bobbitt contends that the world is in transition from nation states to "market states" whose strategic reason for being "is the protection of civilians, not simply territory or national wealth or any particular dynasty, class, religion or ideology." This shift, he argues, has huge implications for counterterrorism, because future terrorists -- particularly if they possess nuclear or biological weapons -- may threaten the legitimacy of the market state. "Almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about twenty-first century terrorism and its relationship to the Wars against Terror," he says, "is wrong."

Bobbitt, a professor at Columbia University who previously wrote The Shield of Achilles, a monumental history of warfare, has held senior positions in several Democratic administrations. Despite his establishment pedigree, he is a thoroughgoing contrarian. Defying the nearly universal criticism among academics of the term "war on terror," Bobbitt embraces it, making a strong case -- better than the Bush administration has -- that the challenge can best be thought of as a series of wars.

His list of erroneous assumptions about terror goes on for two pages, beginning with the idea "that terrorism has always been with us, and though its weapons may change, it will remain fundamentally the same." In reality, he argues, al-Qaeda represents a new form of terrorism that seeks mass casualties, is highly decentralized and, like its market-state enemy, even uses outsourcing. Should Osama bin Laden be defeated tomorrow, Bobbitt says, the kind of terrorism he pioneered is here to stay.

In using the term "war" to describe its counterterrorist activities, the Bush administration has seemed at times to disdain legal constraints on the use of torture and electronic surveillance. But Bobbitt doesn't plead for a return to the status quo of the 1990s. Rather, he calls for public recognition of the need for new tools to fight terrorism and, at the same time, for ensuring their conformity to law. While readers may at first see this as another Democratic critique of Bush, in many ways it is just the opposite: an intelligent embrace of the Bush administration's strategic worldview but not its methods.

Yet some of Bobbitt's arguments fall flat. The very scope of the book detracts from its content, a stark contrast to Fukuyama and Huntington, who each presented one big thesis, tightly constructed and defended. In Terror and Consent, so many arguments are moving at any one time that it is easy to lose the logical thread through 600-plus pages. To liven things up, Bobbitt draws in examples from the Bible, ancient Greek city states, the French Resistance, the Habsburg-Valois wars and (perhaps it goes without saying) homosexual pirates. These historical parallels sometimes amuse and inform; too often they simply distract.

In his effort to show a world transformed, Bobbitt seems at times to contend that everything is new under the sun. He declares Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon to be "unique," despite many historical parallels, including past Israeli operations there. He claims that terrorism in the era of the market state is more theatrical than in the past. Yet one of the pioneering scholars of terrorism, Brian Jenkins, noted in 1975 that "terrorism is theatre." Who can forget the Black September organization's dramatic kidnapping of Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics? History may not always repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain observed, it often rhymes.

Most interesting, and most arguable, is Bobbitt's assertion that "it hardly matters whether the forces of destruction arise from militant Islam, North Korean communism, or Caribbean hurricanes." He is correct, of course, that natural disasters, like catastrophic terrorist attacks, can kill thousands of people and undermine confidence in governments unless they respond effectively. But lumping together such disparate incidents risks making counterterrorism so broad a term as to be meaningless. Hurricanes are invariable natural disasters; terrorism varies in reaction to the response, and U.S. policy affects the incidence of attacks as well as their severity.

To his credit, Bobbitt offers many policy recommendations. One is for the United States to build an alliance of democracies ready to undertake humanitarian and strategic interventions -- essentially, NATO on steroids. He contends that this intervention doesn't always have to be military. But his book leans heavily on the "hard" side of power, and it isn't clear why his rationale for intervention in Rwanda and Darfur wouldn't apply equally to Afghanistan (pre-Taliban), Algeria, Angola, Congo, Nepal, Somalia, Tajikistan and Yemen, among other places. His doctrine does not tell us when not to intervene or when military action, rather than economic and diplomatic pressure, is necessary. These are the hardest questions.

Readers might also ask whether the Iraq misadventure should make us cautious about interventions elsewhere. Bobbitt dismisses the question, saying it is "too soon to conclude that the removal of Saddam Hussein . . . will prove to be a mistake." But that is not a satisfying argument, given that even if the United States succeeds in Iraq in years to come, the human and financial cost already has been staggering. His dismissal is disappointing in a book that is otherwise quite fair to counterarguments.

My advice is that readers should approach Terror and Consent with a mixture of caution and open-mindedness. Not all of Bobbitt's pronouncements may be convincing. But his book constantly prods us to reexamine our preconceptions about terrorism, which is by itself some preparation for what may lie ahead. ยท

Daniel Byman directs Georgetown's Center for Peace and Security Studies and is a senior fellow at Brookings's Saban Center. His latest book is " The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad."

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