Bobbitt Redux (Re: Terrorism and McCain)

I mentioned Philipp Bobbitt’s work in this previous post; here he is on Conversations with History discussing his most recent book Terror and Consent.

I really dig Conv. with Hist. but the interviewer (Prof. Kreisler) always begins with personal bio/love of history, which I usually find less than interesting.  If you’re like me in that regard, the meat of the conversation begins at about 13:50.

As I stated in my last post, I think his understanding of state formation is pretty much unparalleled.  He has a genius ability for the coining of new phrases/terms.  But unfortunately his new book has some major deficiencies in its understanding of terrorism.

Follow me after the jump as I detail how/why…

Here is John Robb (the master expert on contemporary terrorism) reviewing Bobbitt on this point precisely:

The way they [terrorists[ fight us is by limiting our choices through terror. Terror, in this context, is essentially theater. In this theater, disgruntled people (Islamic terrorists and beyond) will use the threat of flamboyant attacks to limit the choices offered by the market-world. Since the market-state will continue to produce ever greater levels of choice to an ever greater number of people, this clash is inevitable. Therefore, our societal objective is to harden ourselves (through smart legal maneuvers and investments in infrastructure) to limit the the levels of terror that can be produced by our opponents. By doing this, we can buy time as the market-world continues to expand to ever greater numbers of people.

I was hopeful that Bobbitt would approach terrorism in a more nuanced way than merely through the lens of the prevailing narrative fallacy (for example: “The Looming Tower”). Unfortunately, he didn’t and his depiction of terrorism is merely as a means for disgruntled groups to negate choice (a variant of Bush’s “they hate us for our freedoms”).

A more complex and realistic view of terrorism is to approach it as illegal warfare directed against civilians. This warfare also has more complex objectives that merely limiting choices through the production of terror. In many cases, it advances the groups that conduct it economically, socially, etc. (usually at the expense of state competitors). For example: Nigeria’s MEND, Brazil’s PCC, Mexico’s Cartels/Zetas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Colombia’s FARC, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso and most of the groups in Iraq/Afghanistan (who advance through smuggling/corruption/etc.). Unfortunately, Bobbitt didn’t deviate from the simplistic view of terrorism and his book suffers mightily from the result.

[For Robb’s treatment of terrorism (unmatched imo), read Brave New War.]

When in discussing terrorism in the video above, Bobbitt sticks to the notion of terrorist as parasites or the inverse of the market state he is on solid ground.  They are the Mr. Smith if you like to Globalization’s Neo.  The equation trying to balance itself out.  Terrorists exist and subsist via the same “flat” or rather connected platform of the globalized economy.

When as Robb says he gets into the notion that terrorists hate us for our freedom then the floor is collapsing beneath his feet.  What I think is behind Bobbitt’s mistake on this point is taking al-Qaeda as paradigmatic for the new age of terrorism.  While al-Qaeda technically does have a vision of reinstating a Caliphate across the Middle East, the practical reality is they have no chance in hell that such a thing will ever come to pass.  Neo-Caliphatism is so 20th century.  The new thing is Islamo-nationlism.  But AQ can’t go for that because they think nationalism is a Western secular sell out (hint: they are right).  But you think Hezbollah is just hoping al-Qaeda comes in and takes over their turf?

The practical outcome of Al-Qaeda’s unrealistic goal is that in practice they are nihilistic.  Bobbitt has correctly picked up on this point but then in my mind has generalized out from that point to other terrorists group which is a mistake.

Now the reason I’m going through in more detail than you might like is that Candidate McCain calls Terror and Consent, “the best book on terrorism I’ve ever read.”  That’s problematic.  Because the points at which Bobbitt is imo weakest precisely reinforce what I consider to be the worst tendencies in McCain’s foreign policy.

1)The terrorists hate us for our freedom
2)The world is separated into terror states and consent states (i.e. McCain’s League of Democracies)

On the plus side, reading Bobbitt would hopefully calm McCain down as to the degree to which terrorists constitute an “existential threat” to the United States.  Bobbitt is very clear and very strong on the point that the real fear is that we will overreact to terrorist attacks (as we did after 9/11:  Patriot Act, Homeland Security boondoogle, ludicrous wasteful ineffective airport security, and of course Iraq) and turn ourselves into a Terror State at home.

Bobbitt’s work in this regard meshes well with Benjamin Wittes’ Law and the Long War.  The Congress needs to help set into law the legal framework of the Long War.  It needs to take into account (a la Bobbitt) the need for infrastructure building and contingency plans, so that the lines of authority and decision making are clear.

Bobbitt is a searing critique of Bush on torture and the shadow government.  As Jack Balkin says the choice is not between a non-National Surveillance State and a National Surveillance State; the choice is between whether that state (which is coming and already here–an element of Bobbitt’s Market State) is a more open, transparent one (i.e. Obama’s call for bringing the internet era to the fed) or opaque (i.e. Bush).  McCain has tendencies in both directions–he’s called for closing Gitmo but he also voted against applying the Army Manual to the CIA vis a vis torture.

Update I: To get a different opinion (from an author I have a good deal of respect for) who has a much more 100% positive view of Terror and Consent, Niall Ferguson reviews the book for the NyTimes.

Update II:  As to how PB has changed my thinking, I’ve changed the category of War on Terror to The Long War (his formulation and a superior one).

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] cdierkes first collected Added 19 Sep 08 from […]

  2. […] review here.  Mine here. Published […]

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