June 1, 2008


Handling a 21st-Century Threat: Today's terrorists mirror the globalized industrial societies whose techniques they employ. How will our leaders combat the new "market terrorists"? (Mark Bowden, 6/01/08, Philadelphia Inquirer)

The terrorists of the 21st century will not necessarily all be Islamist; in fact, beliefs will matter less than methods. It is terrorism itself that poses the threat.

Al-Qaeda has just pointed the way. It has employed the tools of the emerging international market state, air travel, and the ability to transfer money and information worldwide. It has plotted, recruited and instructed martyrs, and advertised its goals and accomplishments via satellite phones, the Internet and international media. In the near future, it and other networks like it will be able to buy terrible weapons off the shelf and seek to detonate them in congested urban centers where they will do the most harm. They are the curse of the modern age, and like the curses of previous eras, they mirror the law-abiding, civil societies they threaten.

This is the threat outlined succinctly in Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt's remarkable effort to make sense of our post-9/11 world. Bobbitt - director of the Center for National Security at Columbia University - describes our era as the "market state," as opposed to the nation-states that dominated the 20th century. The nationalist rebel movements of that century sought primarily to supplant government in their own countries and modeled their own hierarchy on the governments they opposed. So today's terrorist networks are international and stateless. They are modeled after the global institutions that define the nascent market state. They seek to undermine the partnerships, security, and rule of law that enable free trade and prosperity, replacing our "state of consent" with a "state of terror."

Better than anyone I have read, Bobbitt has thought through both the nature of the danger and how we should defend ourselves from it. He is no alarmist. Al-Qaeda itself does not pose an immediate threat to our way of life, but the implications of its successes are disturbing. They suggest that our security can no longer be protected by the mighty war machine that defines the United States as the world's superpower. Our military, unmatched in fighting the last great wars, is already an anachronism.

In the years since Atta and his men slammed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United States has lashed out violently in a variety of directions, sometimes effectively, often not. President Bush has been decisive and consistent, to a fault, but also incoherent. Congress has become a persistent critic, but has offered little else. We need a strategy that rises above political partisanship and the bromides of a presidential race, one that clearly defines not only what we are fighting against but what we are fighting for.

One first step is to acknowledge the severity of the problem. Terrorism is not simply a law enforcement issue, although combating it may mean blending military and police methods. Terrible weapons once possessed only by powerful states today are becoming available on international black markets. The technology and materials to build them are already for sale, and it is likely that soon the weapons themselves will be. There is not only the terrible loss of life and economic damage to consider - but also the fate of civil liberties and the rule of law after a major attack that kills not just thousands, but tens of thousands. The assumption of war powers by the Bush administration in the years after 9/11 will seem benign by comparison.

What we fight for is the safety of civilians to live normal lives free of chaos and catastrophe, and the preservation of democratic, law-abiding states that respect human rights, what Bobbitt calls "states of consent."

The enemy seeks a "state of fear," and not just in al-Qaeda's ludicrous, cruel and imaginary caliphate. They strive to sow enough fear to topple the normal workings of a free society. We protect ourselves not just by controlling how we respond to acts of terror - as my Atlantic colleague Jim Fallows has suggested - but also by preventing such acts.

Prevention, or what Bobbitt calls "preclusion," means uniting the considerable moral, military and economic clout of the modern market state - that is, global cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Liberals will gladly embrace the importance of such alliances (it is a cornerstone of the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton) and the need to function within the law, both domestic and (such as it exists) international.

Mr. Bowden is normally excellent, but this is all disastrously wrong and derives from Mr. Bobbitt's failure to fully comprehend the Long War in his previous tome, Shield of Achilles. To accept the transnationalism called for here would be to lose that War, as Mr. Bobbitt himself stated the stakes:
[T]he fundamental constitutional problem of the Long War has been answered. Government by consent, freely given and periodically capable of being withdrawn, is what legitimates the nation-state. Government under law--no government that is above the law--provides the means by which states are legitimated.

The fact of the matter is that the problem presented by terrorism is anything but severe, really quite minimal, while the problem presented by transnationalism is existential, as witness dying Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2008 8:28 AM

The huge war mahine of the United States has actually been very effective, and the United States has not lashed out randomly, but rather deliberately. The United States also has more of the resources - financial, diplomatic, and ideological than Al Qaeda and like groups have. Fighting groups like this is akin to fighting pirates, a task governments have been used to doing. In fact, too many scholars and diplomats are so mesmerized by the post WW1/WW2 settlement that they have not recognized the return of Kipling's World, which happened after the fall of the Soviet Union - frigates on the sea lanes, punitive expeditions into stateless places, strikes against brigand and bandit groups. Re-reading Kipling's poetry reveals what the United States has been doing since Sept. 11, 2001.

The problem is that there isn't the obvious surrender ceremony on the deck of the Missouri for these academics to see, but in Kipling's World you do not have that.

Posted by: Mikey at June 1, 2008 11:46 AM

The lesson is very simple - do not encourage people to scream "Death to America! Death to the Great Satan!". Do not kill Americans or fund/support proxies to do that. Do not do that to America's friends, either.

If you do you invite the big hammer and a lot of little hammers to hit you. Be nice and we likely will not kill you and yours.

What is so hard to understand about that?

Posted by: Mikey at June 1, 2008 2:35 PM

Thanks Mikey, well put. My sentiments exactly.

Posted by: Bartman at June 2, 2008 8:33 AM
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