Terror and Consent

Terror and Consent by Professor Phillip Bobbit is a 2008 account of the market states (post Westphalian borderless states led by seamless market economies offering more choices) preparing to fight the scourge of terrorism perpetuated by “Al Qaeda” (a name he choses to define Islamist terror networks). This dense book traverses the history of warfare since the Treaty of Westphalia and flags the current phase as one in which the market states have to transcend the conventional means of war fighting and homeland security to meet the challenges of hybrid wars unleashed upon the world by non government terror net works as also state sponsored terror. These are enemy of this newly emerging market-based system, and the main focus of this book, are (naturally) terrorists. Terrorists, Bobbitt claims, fight us because they hate the choices provided to us by this emerging market-world.

The book is West focused and Bobbit, acknowledging the dangers of terror in a post 9/11 America, has strong prescriptions for a western alliance, complete with international laws to tackle this menace. He believes that the  war against terror is real; that civil liberties assume a new dimension to win it; that it must all the same be fought within the rules of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone.

To refine his argument, Bobbitt introduces a distinction. Both the market-states and the nation-states of the West are democratic; they are “states of consent,” in which the rule of law exists to uphold individual liberty and rights. The “terror” modules (both state and non state) aim to replace this consent-based order with a “state of terror.” That is the main argument of the book as it seeks to find prescriptions for the market states to contest the “states of terror”.

As per Bobbit, today’s terror networks are largely considered “Islamist” – an idea which, through political Islam, aspires to fight the “kafirs” (infidels). The Arab Spring has revolutionised the idea of “Islamic Ascendency” where secular Arab and African muslim states are fighting the west towards establishment of an Islamic “Caliphate”. The fissures with in various forms of Islam such as Shia- Sunni divide and the various sects has accentuated the situation where violence to achieve political objectives has become the norm. The current struggle in Syria flags this issue. The Islamist ascendancy, as noted with rise of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is likely to change the muslim world. The war in Af Pak and the recent strangulation of Iran against a nuclear regime indicate the hardline taken by the state and non state Islamist organisations in their fight against the infidels.

The West has, though unwittingly, resulted in fueling the forces of political Islam, which lay dormant for centuries. If the war on Iraq was and is justified, so is the ideological war waged by Islamists against the west. It is this dichotomy which Bobbit fails to sense in its totality. The Iran and Syrian imbroglio with support of China and Russia enunciate a new world order where the West and the Rest have ganged up with various Islamist forces in a long drawn battle with terror being the ultimate tool of the weak.

When Bobbit prescribes strong laws to fight the amorphous terror modules including those aspiring weapons of mass destruction, the prescriptions falls into the realm of international relations and agencies such as United Nations taking stern steps against such initiatives. However, the current mechanism is weak and fragile as indicated by vetos on Syria and support to Iran. Building international consensus thus to formulate globally acceptable laws is not going to come around too soon. US  re-balancing to Asia-Pacific and its proposed withdrawal from Af Pak shall further embolden the Middle East and Africa based “Al Qaeda” which see this as a political victory.

What Bobbit has not emphasised upon is that most of the Muslims of the world reside in South Asia. Pakistan, the “epicentre of terror” remains an uneasy partner of US in the so-called “war on terror”. The discovery of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan was a call to arms to take the state down for spreading terror globally. But the realities of fatigue in Af Pak have forced US to unilaterally withdraw leaving behind a world of chaos which would soon reach the American doorsteps. Bobbit did not have the insights, I have while writing this review, that American policy of “War on Terror” has in fact destabilised America more than any other country or people. It has helped these amorphous networks to strengthen their war against US. It has altered the definition of homeland security and brought about a new coinage “hybrid wars” – a strategy of the weak to bleed the conventionally superior foe.

Today, conflict is democratized, not in the sense of bicameral legislatures but strategic influence in the hands of non-state actors empowered by falling barriers to information acquisition, packaging and dissemination as well as easy access to the means of destruction and disruption, physical and virtual. Pakistan leads the world as master of such styles of warfare – using terrorists as strategic hedge to achieve their objectives. Pakistan has perfected the art over the years. Their cadres are in stiff competition with Hezbollah and they have given al Qaeda a boost in spreading terror from their territory.

What does this mean? The western notion of “state of consent” (democracy) is messy and yet we continue to formulate, plan, and execute engagement using “regular” and “homogeneous” bureaucracies and budgets. Today’s threats are increasingly complex and rarely conforming to neat lines of authorities and responsibilities across, or within, government agencies, most of which were designed in and for previous eras. The security apparatus  is archaic, inefficient and unresponsive to the changing needs within the context of “Whole of Government” approach to tackle these irregular threats.

Precisely because of the nature of the border less 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.

The task Bobbit has set himself here is to challenge nearly all our existing ideas about the so-called war(s) on terror , in the belief that only a root-and-branch rethinking will equip US to deal with the problems posed by “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mass terrorist atrocities and humanitarian crises that bring about or are brought about by terror.”

The world of Bobbit in 2008 was a lot different from the one we are witnessing today. The events in the Islamic landscape of the world call for greater insights in dealing with the terror emanating out of the tunnels of Islamic against the market states. It definitely requires better international cooperation on laws, seamless and vibrant response mechanism and militaries capable of fighting hybrid wars.

Again, as a parting shot, Bobbit would have done better by not clubbing all terrorist organisations under the banner of “Al Qaeda” – it only gives them greater synergy in beating the market states of the west. Reviewers argue that terms like ‘Islamic terrorism,’ ‘Islamist terrorism,’ ‘Jihadism’ and ‘Islamofascism’ succeed only in conflating terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists.”

John Rubb, the author of Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, sums up this deficiency in the book when he argues that:

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.


The book is a must read for all practitioners of state craft.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Google PlusCheck Our Feed