It sounds like a good book

Niall Ferguson, whose book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power was an excellent primer about the virtues of the British Empire (a tough argument in an anti-imperialist age), has written a rave review about Philip Bobbit’s newest book, Terror and Consent : The Wars for the Twenty-First Century.  Bobbit, who supported the Iraq War, argues that you can no longer wage wars in a nation-state mold.  This is a concept I tried, and failed, to get my mind around some time ago — indeed, I have a folder labeled Non-Government Organizations that never turned into either a post or an article.  What I really wanted to say, and never could, was this:

In his last book, “The Shield of Achilles” (2002), Bobbitt advanced a bold argument about the history of international relations since the time of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). His central argument was that, in the aftermath of the cold war, the traditional post-Westphalian ideal of the sovereign nation-state had become obsolescent. In the increasingly borderless world we associate with globalization, something new was emerging, which Bobbitt called (and continues to call) the “market-state.” This state’s relationship to its citizens resembles that between a corporation and consumers. Its counterpart — and enemy — is the terrorist network. The central problem raised in “The Shield of Achilles” was how far the market-state could and should go to defeat such networks, particularly when they were in some measure sponsored by traditional nation-states.


Bobbitt’s central premise is that today’s Islamic terrorist network, which he calls Al Qaeda for short, is like a distorted mirror image of the post-Westphalian market-state: decentralized, privatized, outsourced and in some measure divorced from territorial sovereignty. The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.

The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based “terror-state” in the form of a new caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his confederates want to acquire nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. Precisely because of the nature of the market-state, as well as the actions of rogue nation-states, the key components and knowledge are very close to being available to them — witness the nuclear Wal-Mart run in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan. With such weapons, the terrorists will be able to unleash a super-9/11, with scarcely imaginable human and psychological costs.

Bobbit mixes an intelligent understanding of the diffuse and dangerous nature of the enemy we face, along with a practical realization that traditional warfare is no longer a useful approach to dealing with this enemy — or, at least, is not the sole useful approach.  It’s hard to believe he’s a Democrat, although I guess he comes by it honestly enough, since he is (if I recall) a blood relative of LBJ.  In any event, of his Democratic leanings, Ferguson has this to say:

To summarize: Bobbitt believes that there is a real war against terror; that civil liberties as previously understood may need to be curtailed to win it; that we must nevertheless fight it without violating our commitment to the rule of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone. This is certainly not a combination of positions calculated to endear Bobbitt either to the left or the right in the United States today.

Yet it is striking that, despite being a Democrat, Philip Bobbitt so often echoes the arguments made by John McCain on foreign policy. He sees the terrorist threat as deadly serious. He is willing to fight it. But he wants to fight it within the law, and with our traditional allies.

Perhaps — who knows? — this brilliant book may also be an application for the post of national security adviser. In times of war, stranger bedfellows have been known than a Democratic Texas lawyer and a Republican Arizona soldier.

The only thing that bewilders me about the book (or, at least, the book review) is Bobbit himself.  He was my Con Law professor and, while an elegant individual, he didn’t strike me as “A dapper Southerner, renowned almost as much for his sparkling literary allusions as for his acute thinking,” which is how Ferguson describes him.  As a teacher, he was, well, dull.  I guess he saved his brilliance for his books.