Philip C. Bobbitt has had a distinguished career as a law professor and counsel at the highest levels of US government. I was fascinated therefore to hear him speak in London on Monday about his new book Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century. However, I came away largely unconvinced by his thesis.
Bobbitt argues that Al Qaeda is just the first of a new type of 21st-century warfighting phenomenon, of globalised networked terrorism. If such organisations can obtain nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, they can cause carnage on a scale entirely different from 20th century groups such as the IRA or ETA. Therefore states need to take radical action while they still have time in order to tackle this menace — sweeping aside civil liberties and international law if need be.
No doubt the book is more subtle. But Bobbitt's arguments in person were a hysterical yet superficial apologia for George Bush's "war on terror." He claimed that the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq provide evidence that globalised terrorist groups require an entirely new type of hard state response. Others have argued that they instead show the folly of imagining that wars on ideas can be won on the battlefield, however many trillions of dollars blown. Nor have we seen evidence of the fabled online recipes for Weapons of Mass Destruction that would produce any kind of usable WMD. Simon Jenkins, who ably chaired the event, has pointed out before that it is fantasy to conflate the threat from Al Qaeda with the existential threat to the West posed by the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. Jenkins compares them instead to the tea-room anarchists of the late 19th century.
Bobbitt's policy goals as opposed to rhetoric seem much more reasonable. Who could argue with increasing the resilience of countries to both natural and man-made disasters? Or ensuring that Western polities have orderly succession plans in the case of serious threats to the continuity of government? But perhaps such moderate, proportionate responses would be drowned out in a political culture that so catastrophically gave command of the greatest empire since Rome to a group of deranged ex-Trotskyists.