Philip C. Bobbitt

  • Distinguished Senior Lecturer

Everything we think about the wars on terror is wrong

by Matthew d'Ancona
Published May 20, 2006 in The Spectator

Cometh the war, cometh the guru. South of Baghdad, insurgents shoot down a US helicopter, killing two US servicemen, days after five British military servicemen died when their Lynx was brought down in Basra. Iran's President scornfully rejects the EU's latest desperate bid to stop him building nuclear weapons. A parliamentary report on the 7 July bombings reveals terrible intelligence errors. The Afghan foreign minister complains that Osama bin Laden is still at large in Pakistan. A war on many fronts: but are we winning?

Step forward Philip Bobbitt, a tall, immaculately dressed 57-year-old Texan scholar, who now spends most of his time in London. Four years ago, this constitutional lawyer – who has held several senior posts on the National Security Council and is a professor at the University of Texas – won international acclaim for The Shield of Achilles, a 900-page exploration of war and peace in our times. The main text was completed before 9/11, though it foretold much of what followed that atrocity. Now Bobbitt is returning to the fray, working on a book that will demand that we rethink entirely our lazy assumptions about the war on terror.

A sneak preview of the sage's new ideas reveals the following, devastating premise: his belief that 'almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about 21st-century terrorism and its relationship to the wars on terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought'.

Gulp. So, I ask Bobbitt in an interview hosted by the think-tank Policy Exchange, what has gone wrong? The answer, he says, is that we do not understand either the enemy or, crucially, ourselves. We lack the 'intellectual tools'.

At the heart of his analysis is the concept of the 'market state', the millennial successor to the nation state. He explains: 'You can see it here in Britain – when states go from reliance on law and regulation, so characteristic of the nation state, to deregulating not only industries, but also women's reproduction. When states move from conscription to an all-volunteer force to raise armies; in the UK you saw this development in the policy of top-up fees for college tuition. You see it in America with welfare reform when we go from direct transfers, and workmen's compensation, to providing skills to enter the labour market. In all of these instances you are seeing the beginnings of a change in which the state says, "Give us power and we will maximise your opportunity. What you do with it – that's up to you. We will not assure you equality, and we will not assure you steadily improving security, but the total wealth of the society will be maximised."'

We are moving, in other words, to a new global constitutional order without fully realising it. He speaks of the 'unique vulnerabilities of globalised, networked market states'. What does he mean?

'I remember when I was a boy going with my father to open up a bank account,' he says. 'He took me down and I met the president of the Austin National Bank, who seemed to me a very august and remote figure. He went down with me, and my father deposited $5 in my account, and I got a chequebook.' Bobbitt recounts this in the distinctive, quiet tones of the Southern gentleman (his mother was Lyndon Johnson's sister). His conversational technique is that of the erudite anecdotalist: he will quote from an American cartoon strip one moment, and the poet Czeslaw Milosz the next.

'Now I don't know who owns the Austin National Bank now,' Bobbitt continues. 'It's not anybody in Austin, it's not anybody in Texas. I drove by it the other day and I thought: suppose I was in there now and suppose the power went out, what would happen? Well a lot of things would happen. All transfers would stop, I couldn't use an ATM machine, there'd be no way for me to access my account. I couldn't even get money out from a teller because she couldn't or he couldn't check the funds available. Whereas when I was a boy and I went down there, if the power went out they would actually have just brought out candles. It's that kind of connectivity that allows a cascading series of vulnerabilities to be exploited. It's true for pressured gas pipelines, it's true for the public switched network, over which 90 per cent of our defence communications go – it has made us very rich, it has brought us a considerable amount of wealth and improvement in our living standards, and it is making people in some of the poorest parts of the world much better off than they were before, but it also makes us very vulnerable.'

It is a grave error, he says, to see contemporary Islamic terrorism as mediaeval. 'Al-Qa'eda is not a consequence of the interface between a globalised secular modernist culture and a more simple, more backward, less literate culture. I don't think that's it at all. I think al-Qa'eda is a slick, very modern, very post-modernist, very with-it group, and you see this in the sophistication of their media strategies.'

Next, we must accept that the global centre of Islamic terror 'is in Europe, not in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. The most important cell for 9/11 wasn't in Jeddah, it was in Hamburg. And I think this will only increase.'

He insists, most pointedly, that we speak in the plural of the 'wars on terror', and create a new constitutional order – global and national – capable of withstanding these many threats, some of them as yet unknown.

'You have to be able to defend yourself when you don't know who is hitting you, or you can get hit again. At one point I was going to call my book A Plague Treatise for the 21st Century; as you know, plague treatises were written in the 13th and 14th centuries by physicians and clerics and they talked about a phenomenon that they by and large didn't understand. They didn't have germ theory. I don't think we really understand the operation of terror in the 21st century. But this much I think we do understand: that we have to build up our immune systems. We cannot simply win this fight by going after our adversaries, and attacking them and killing them.'

Systematic intellectual and cultural preparation is of the essence, Bobbitt argues. The alternative is complacency, followed by disaster, followed by mindless authoritarianism. 'I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you're talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption. And I think that these debates now, although I'm perplexed sometimes by the course they take, are really very, very important. We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we're facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place.'

The key, Bobbitt says, is to put the rule of law at the heart of your strategy, to give the emerging 'market state' the legitimacy to act decisively rather than to appear – as, in his view, the US did in Iraq – like a bunch of con men, peddling false information (dodgy dossiers), being deferential to corporations (Halliburton) and contracting out its dirty work (the 'private interrogators' at Abu Ghraib).

'What [the Bush] administration has done – and I support the war in Iraq – what they have done is heartbreaking, because they have steadily removed the greatest source of their power, which was the rule of the law. You may think of Abu Ghraib as a battle, and we lost. Guantanamo is a battle that we have lost. It will cost us lives, it will cost us political influence, and above all it may cost us our strategic objectives. Not simply by ignoring it, but by having a studied contempt for the law, and not just international law, which needs desperately to be reformed, but for even our domestic laws. The administration has kicked away what should have been its strongest prop. It baffles me. And it angers me.'

Onward the philosophical convoy moves, to Iran. Here, Bobbitt compares the shambolic strategy of today's nation states, interacting in the UN and the EU, to the doomed Mafia Commission of the 1950s. 'They were criminal, for heaven's sake! Why would you expect it to work? Well, we're having trouble organising nation states. We're having a great deal of difficulty, whether it's Darfur or Iran, or climate change – why? They're nation states, what is so surprising about that? They will look at their national interests, often in a very short-sighted way, and they'll find themselves almost incapable of co-ordinating a response. Now, many times that doesn't matter, but for some things, they can only be solved collectively, it's a real problem. You know, I think there are market-state things that can be done with Iran and they maybe involve bribery, if that's not too provocative a way of putting it. I don't think they involve marching into Tehran and I certainly don't think they involve throwing bombs at six sites, and I could never be persuaded, never, that they involved bombing these sites with nuclear weapons, to be able to penetrate some of the protected laboratories.... And I'm afraid I agree that right now you have to say it looks as though in a few years, maybe four or five, maybe ten or 12, that the Iranians will have some kind of nuclear capability.'

And then? 'It doesn't mean that Iran will acquire a nuclear capability that is a threat to this country or anyone in the United States; it doesn't mean they can't denuclearise some day in the future, as South Africa, Ukraine and Libya and other states have done. It doesn't even mean that they will be incapable of protecting what weapons they have from terrorists. But it probably does mean that once Iran has deployed nuclear weapons, the Saudis will want weapons, the Egyptians will follow suit and then the Iraqis will resume their pursuit of such weapons.'

Back to basics? You bet. Bobbitt reminds me of Yeats's long-legged fly, moving 'upon the stream', surveying the great movements of history. And what does the Texan guru, this adviser to presidents, see from up there? Alas, that our difficulties are barely beginning.

'Al-Qa'eda is not, I think, the mature threat that I worry about.' The Texan reflects for a moment, ruefully. 'It may sound absurd to say this. But I think these are our salad days.'