New world orders?

Terrorism will become more common and more destructive in the 21st century. But is al-Qaeda really s

With "war on terror" nearly seven years old, Philip Bobbitt, a distinguished US academic and former policymaker, has written a big book that attempts to reframe the way we think about terrorism and our response to it. Terror and Consent is clearly intended to be read as a new paradigm for this campaign, on a par with but replacing "the end of history" or "the clash of civilisations" or, further back, the containment theory that framed US policy towards the USSR.

It is timely. With Bush at last on his way out, there is a rare opening for fresh thinking. No one in the United States, including Bobbitt, pretends anything other than that the current adminis tration has made a pretty good mess of it. With badly planned and poorly executed conflicts still burning in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Osama Bin Laden at large and undefeated, it is hard to claim otherwise. A debate rumbles on about the extent to which al-Qaeda has been weakened by recent arrests and targeted killings (by CIA drones over Pakistan, for instance) but no one is claiming that the enemy has been vanquished.

Bobbitt spans the discourses of history, law and the military to make his case. His big new argument is that the nature of today's terrorism, of which al-Qaeda is a mere forerunner, flows directly from the nature of the state, the decentralised, contracted-out polity he calls the "market state". He cites analysis of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani nuclear proliferator A Q Khan to suggest that, from now on, terrorism will be unprecedented in its murderousness and scattered in its organisation (and thus harder to target) and, most worryingly, is likely to be armed, one day soon, with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons. Such terrorism will be enduring, difficult to defeat and uniquely dangerous. Its aims and conduct suggest that the appropriate metaphor to describe it, and thus deal with it, is, indeed, a "war": one of the few points on which Bobbitt agrees with the Bush administration.

To combat this threat, states should conduct themselves with the support of the populace (the "consent" of Bobbitt's title) and within the law: without these pillars, any fight will be undermined. If the struggle requires new, hitherto illegal measures, the law should be changed by consent, democratically, rather than be ignored. The US (and this is a very US-centric analysis) will need allies to win, and should not alienate them by its actions.

So far, so sensible, though one is struck that such common-sense recommendations should seem so remarkable. They are remarkable, of course, only because the world has endured an administration that has ignored such obvious reason hitherto. However, I cannot join the almost universal fanfare of praise that has greeted this book in both Britain and the US (Niall Ferguson said in the New York Times that it is "quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 - indeed, since the end of the Cold War"). There are a number of troubling inconsistencies if not downright contradictions in this behemoth treatise.

For instance, Bobbitt spends much time arguing that the term "war" is appropriate, but without considering properly the best argument for discarding the term, which the US homeland security chief, among others, has recently accepted - namely that "war" is what the terrorists want (as Bobby Sands wanted convicted IRA prisoners to be prisoners of war). They welcome it because it elevates them above the common criminal.

In another section, Bobbitt dissects the arguments for and against torture and concludes that while there should be an absolute ban on all torture, coercive measures are justified against those holding strategic information, but coercive measures short of inflicting extreme pain. He suggests that such procedures should be subjected to public consent. Despite this condition, this still seems to contradict directly his otherwise compelling argument that any war against terrorism should be lawful - unless, of course, the US chooses to go down the Israeli route of judicial sanction for certain kinds of torture (the infamous Landau commission guidelines). Even if legal, such a policy would damage internationally the US claim to legitimacy, as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have already demonstrated in different ways - and as the Landau guidelines have done in Israel's case. Bobbitt accepts that legitimacy flows not just from law, but also from the perception that a state is behaving morally. One can debate what morality means, but most of us would agree this must exclude all torture, a view also expressed clearly in international law.

Bobbitt's central claim seems to me the most problematic. The idea that al-Qaeda represents a novel and uniquely dangerous form of terrorism is not new. But is it correct to say that its nature and that of other likely contemporary terrorist formations follows intrinsically from the form of the state and the constitutional order of the world in the 21st century? In one passage to illustrate the argument, Bobbitt compares al-Qaeda to Visa, suggesting that both are decentralised, franchised organisations, and thus somehow typical of the globalised age.

One immediate objection is that al-Qaeda is attacking not only modern liberal democracies such as the US, but also theocratic autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and repressive dictatorships such as Egypt: both countries played a crucial role in shaping the views of leading Qaeda protagonists. Al-Qaeda is not like Visa. Visa may be networked, but it is also a corporate hierarchy. Jason Burke and many others with whom Bobbitt takes issue have not only argued, but also shown, that it is not so much a hierarchy as an often disconnected group of individuals, motivated primarily by the ideas of al-Qaeda's leadership.

The actions of the Algerian group "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" illustrate the point. It is not a "franchise" of al-Qaeda, even though it renamed itself after Bin Laden's grouping recently; it is a group inspired to an extent by Bin Laden's philosophy, but with quite local aims, ambitions and antecedents. It is misleading to describe such phenomena with a corporate analogy - in fact, better not to use analogies at all.

This example illustrates the dangers of Bobbitt's manner of trying to describe things either by likening them to more familiar things or by giving them new names. His arguments, which are important, are not helped by the invocation of new terminology ("market states", "states of consent") and his repetition of the awful and deadening acronyms of the contemporary debate: the misleading "WMDs" makes its inev itable appearance, as does RMA - the revolution in military affairs. Why not just try to describe the thing as it is? Reading this book, I yearned for more facts about terrorism, such as in the illuminating jihadist memoir by Omar Nasiri, Inside the Global Jihad, or Lawrence Wright's brilliant The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda's Road to 9/11, upon which Bobbitt's book draws. In the US as in the UK, there is a surfeit of interpretation and precious little information.

A more surprising problem is the inaccuracies in the author's prodigious research. The US and UK did not seek or obtain a UN Security Council resolution to authorise the invasion of Afghan istan; instead, they informed the UN of the action under Article 51 - self-defence - of the UN Charter, a crucial difference. In Iraq, the Saddam regime relied primarily not on corruption in the UN oil-for-food programme to secure funds to sustain itself, but on illegal oil smuggling to Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf, a trade in effect sanctioned by neglect by the US and its allies. This is not a minor quibble - stopping this illicit trade could have helped avoid the 2003 war (which Bobbitt supported). His lengthy examination of the challenges of intelligence collection and examination, which touches on the lead-up to the Iraq war, fails to pay serious heed to the possibility, which the US Senate intelligence committee now endorses in the case of Iraq, that intelligence can be deliberately misrepresented by governments. Unimpressive, too, is Bobbitt's attribution of all opinion that is silly in the debate about terrorism - for instance, that it doesn't really exist at all - to "Europeans" (though he seems to have a soft spot for us plucky Brits).

Despite his evident scholarship, I did not find Bobbitt's new paradigms wholly convincing. Indeed, I began to doubt that we need a new paradigm at all. In messy political matters, paradigms can mislead by their overarching simpli fications. They discourage the necessary and all-too-often neglected close examination of the thing at issue. Twenty-first-century terrorism includes ETA, Chechen militants and rebels of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, as well as al-Qaeda, which is itself - or are themselves - far from static or monolithic, with sometimes global aims (such as a new caliphate) and sometimes local ones. Bobbitt is writing about only one of these phenomena, though his paradigmatic claims are much broader.

The response to terrorism needs to be - among many other things - multiple, case-specific and subtle. It might involve successful criminal prosecution as a means to delegitimise terrorism's appeal as well as punish its perpetrators (as Peter Clarke of Scotland Yard has recently argued). In the warfare sometimes necessary in this fight, Bobbitt rightly argues, following General Sir Rupert Smith's thesis in The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World, that the ability to win hearts and minds is just as important as the control of territory, if not more so. Prepa ration for "the day after" military victory with policing and state-building is as essential as the conquest itself. If the US (and by extension the UK) is to win this "war", or whatever we choose to call it, it must be as consistent and scrupulous in demanding democracy and lawfulness from itself and its allies in that war (Pakistan, Egypt or Morocco spring to mind) as it is in the aggressive pursuit of terrorists. These prescriptions need not be overcomplicated, nor forced needlessly into fancy new concepts. We just need a new administration to follow them.

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat and now director of Independent Diplomat ( He is the author of "Independent Diplomat: Despatches from an Unaccountable Elite" (C Hurst & Co)

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically