Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My TLS review of Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, now out online

Philip Bobbitt’s book Terror and Consent is a marvelous book, and I hope it gets wide readership. It is long, but It repays careful study. My review in the Times Literary Supplement has just appeared online. Here is a little bit of it (and thanks to Larry Solum at Legal Theory Blog for the shoutout):

Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent is a big book, enormous in concept and sweep, full of portent for transnational politics in the twenty-first century. Portentousness in a book can be a good thing, provided it delivers as promised, and this one delivers more intellectual punch on the fraught relationships between state and society, terrorism and terrorists, than any book I know. Not everyone feels this way; one indicator of the book’s intrinsic interest is the volatility of the reviews. The Economist was distinctly cool; Bobbitt’s grand ambition, it said, “is confusing, hard to digest, and perhaps wrong”. Niall Ferguson, on the other hand, recently called it the “most profound book on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 – indeed, since the end of the cold war”.

A problem with much current analysis of this nature is that it thinks small. Today’s most serious efforts tend to avoid anything resembling a grand strategy for winning a long-term struggle against terrorists and terrorist organizations, and the states that sponsor and shield them. Favoured instead is the narrowing method of cost-benefit analysis and (adopting one version of it) an endorsement of defensive, immediate measures that are most obviously cost-effective. Talk of “victory” or “winning”, meanwhile, might resemble talk of “war” – but these days few dare call it war, at least if one wants to remain respectable among Western policy, academic and political elites. Governments shrink back, in fear of precisely the Muslim backlash their timidity invites. Terror and Consent, for its part, is heterodox on a long list of things. Bobbitt thinks that the struggle against terrorism is plainly a war, to be called a war and fought as a war, against religiously driven Islamist ideologues who seek to establish, he says, their vision of the caliphate. These figures operate in what he flatly calls “states of terror” that must be defeated. Nonetheless, changing conditions of twenty-first-century war, because of changing conditions of the twenty-first-century state, mean that war is not as it has long been.

Recent approaches to terrorism are driven not just by narrow cost-benefit analysis, but by a still narrower focus on something we might call “event-specific catastrophism”: preventing the next attack.

This is understandable for the Bush administration, considering what its officials see every day in secret threat assessments. The US Attorney General since late 2007, Michael Mukasey, has mused publicly about how constant and serious the threats against the US are; despite no successful homeland attacks since 9/11, he is “surprised by how surprised I am”. This may well be self-serving administration rhetoric, but much US policy is based less on “war” than on the last defensive perimeters: airport security, daily monitoring of cellphone traffic, internet analysis, watch lists, and many, many cement barriers. This is counterterrorism in a vital but stiflingly narrow sense. The cost-benefit analysis underlying such planning bears little resemblance to any strategic conceptual response to jihad that goes beyond preventing particular events of uncertain probability and magnitude.

Indeed, since 9/11, the Bush administration has undertaken only one genuinely strategic gambit – rolling the dice on Iraq and inviting al-Qaeda and other jihadists to make their stand there. But this is a post-hoc rationale: the Bush administration obviously undertook the Iraq war on a very different strategic basis.

The Bush administration’s numerous critics ridicule US counterterrorism policy in great measure within the same narrow framework that the administration has used. Sometimes the cost-benefit analysis would scarcely pass muster in an undergraduate economics class – the political scientist John Mueller, in his bestselling Overblown (2006), or the journalist James Fallows, each breezily announcing that the chances of getting killed in a terrorist attack are less than getting struck by lightning, or that 9/11 killed 3,000 people whereas 40,000 Americans die each year in automobile accidents and, ergo, well what? Cost-benefit comparison of opportunity costs makes sense only if comparing genuinely apposite opportunities. There have been some serious cost-benefit analyses offered in criticism of US policy. Cass R. Sunstein, for example, in his impressive, thoughtful Worst-Case Scenarios (2007), calmly demolished the so-called “One Percent Doctrine” – Vice-President Cheney’s assertion that even a 1 per cent chance of a catastrophic terrorist event requires a response as though it were a complete, 100 per cent certainty. Not even all the instruments of the national will (what President Bush committed to the fight against terrorism after 9/11) are unlimited. Choices still have to be made and priorities established and, as Sunstein observed, preventative actions bring risks of their own.

Nonetheless, even sophisticated analysis takes the prevention of particular events as the fundamental analytic objective. There is an important political reason for this. The American public has been gradually downgrading terrorism as a political priority, even while continuing to say that it supports serious measures against it. American elites, for their part, have been sliding to a dismissively contemptuous view that questions the whole idea of counterterrorism as a serious, large-scale necessity. The threat is downgraded, deploying cost-benefit-style arguments to call the administration’s counterterrorism programmes trumped up and exaggerated, and to suggest that the terrorist threat is quite capable of management without special military or even extraordinary intelligence measures.

Leaving aside the frequent starting assumption that the Bush administration has illegitimately grabbed executive power, and that this, rather than terrorism, is the primary thing against which to protect, the fundamental factual claim is that the probability of a successful attack has been seriously exaggerated. How to interpret, in other words, the fact that the US has not been hit on its territory since 9/11: as evidence of the effectiveness of the anti-terrorism efforts, or evidence that the threat was always more chimerical than real? Thus, in Barack Obama’s reckoning, Islamist terrorism is just one threat among so many: climate change and poverty, genocide and disease. The task is to learn to do as Western European countries do, and manage terror and terrorism, preferably within the existing confines of the criminal justice system. A certain amount of terrorism is normal, because a certain amount of criminality is normal. Of course, the strategic circumstances of Western Europe are different from the US (the threat to Britain, for example, lies mostly within, not without); and few in the US stop to consider that the European approach is as much a matter of necessity as strategic preference.

It might make sense to pursue policies that can at least command wide if shallow support. The kind of fundamental agreement that bound the Cold War’s “Vital Center” in the US over decades appears not to be forthcoming. Even so, few will oppose measures narrowly tailored, through recourse to cost-benefit analysis, towards preventing the next attack. But the difficulty with this policy minimalism, as Bobbitt has observed, is that event-specific cost-benefit analysis is “relentlessly tactical”. Even when not event-specific – even when it takes “Islamist terrorism” as a whole – it is by its very nature reactive. Cost-benefit analysis does not propose solutions; it evaluates proposed solutions offered by other processes. It is not a strategic form of thinking.

Terror and Consent, by contrast, offers strategic thinking on an unapologetically grand scale. It is synthetic across three large fields: history, law and strategic international politics. Bobbitt is able to combine academic and real-world experience – a Democrat by affiliation, he has served in senior positions in both law and intelligence in the Clinton and Bush senior administrations. His core insight is that transnational jihadist terrorism must be understood on the largest historical scale, and that requires understanding the shifting nature of the state and society in both the liberal democratic West and the rest of the world. For Bobbitt, jihadist transnational terrorism gets going by being able to exploit the interstices of the state system, not just on a geographical basis – the failed state of Afghanistan, for example – but on a historical basis, as the nature of the state moves from its incarnation in the twentieth century to something quite different in the twenty-first. Bobbitt’s main point is that al-Qaeda terrorism, and what might eventually replace and transform it, cannot be understood without reference to the state system and its evolution over a long period of time. This leads Terror and Consent into a long walk through the history of the state in the West ....

1 comment:

C. P. West said...

Thank you, Professor Anderson, for your TLS review of Professor Bobbitt's wonderful book. It's distressing that it appeared so briefly on the bestseller lists. Likewise that NYT Book Review--its editors generally NOT over the cliff w their NYT colleagues--has failed to review it. One hopes it will gather steam.
C. P. West, Santa Fe NM