Rethinking the War on Terror

The presidential adviser and author of Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt, shares his ideas on the war on terror in a Standpoint dialogue with Conservative politician and author of Celsius 7/7, Michael Gove

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Daniel Johnson: I thought we’d start with Philip’s striking thesis in Terror and Consent that everything we thought we knew about terrorism and how to deal with it is obsolete and we must start again. It’s a very radical view. Why do you think that?

Philip Bobbitt: Terrorism is the name of an epiphenomenon, a symptom of the state. Different constitutional cultures and orders produce different forms of terrorism. Perhaps the most vulnerability-making quality of our constitutional culture is our refusal to realise that it and the kind of terrorism it produces are undergoing a fundamental change. So we bring the habits of mind of a century of success against terrorism and they are just as inappropriate as those of the French knights who walked onward to Agincourt.

DJ: Michael, what do you think of that? Can the British claim to have learnt something with their long struggle with the IRA?

Michael Gove: Well, one of the things that’s great about Philip’s thesis is that it’s direct and provocative and it forces us to reassess all the assumptions that we have. There’s one aspect of Philip’s analysis with which I completely agree. As states evolve, as technology changes, as states and their citizens change their attitudes towards each other, so terrorist organisations have evolved as well. Not just in reaction to how states act and how states enrage them, but because they too have become more technologically sophisticated. Philip very effectively points out that just as with the modern market state, the development of the traditional nation state is a decentralised, outsourced political structure. So al-Qaeda is a decentralised network organisation that outsources much of its activity. And in that respect I completely agree with Philip’s analysis and I think it’s provocative and useful.

The area where I think I depart, or would certainly place the emphasis slightly differently, is on the lessons that we can learn from history. Philip’s book is stuffed full of historical examples and all the more enjoyable a read for it. But I do think that one of the things we can crucially do is analyse the specific threat that we face from al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism with reference to recent terrorist campaigns and also with reference to recent ideologies. I think that you can see Islamism as a sibling ideology to Fascism and Communism. It’s another type of totalitarianism, there are as many similarities as there are differences. And I also think that we can learn from some of the mistakes that the West has made in dealing with recent terrorist atrocities as well as learning from some of the alleged successes.

PB: We may diverge a bit on this partly because my book is really not about al-Qaeda and the current threat. I perhaps tend to over-­emphasise this fact because we are so mesmerised by al-Qaeda. It’s a current and pointed threat, but if all jihadists became Presbyterians tomorrow, the kind of threat I describe would still exist. It would come from other quarters – anti-­globalisation terrorists, eco-­terrorists, even from groups whose ideologies object to nothing of the present. I think that Michael is really presenting not so much an alternative view as an alternative overlay – that is, he’s addressing a slightly different problem to the one I address. Michael is one of the people who gets it. I’ve felt this way from the very first time I met him and I’m glad to see him prosper in his political career. Usually I have to be extremely tactful with politicians because they’re not really up to speed on this problem. Michael Gove is somebody who really is.

MG: Well, that is very flattering. Philip’s book and his broader analysis is an attempt to say, quite rightly, that even if the current threat were to disappear then there would be vulnerabilities in the way in which our states are organised. That’s not to say that some of the developments we’ve had over the past 30 or 40 years – the way in which states have developed – are bad. It’s simply that you’ve got to be realistic, that with the move towards a certain type of society, more liberal, more open in lots of ways, so new vulnerabilities are exposed.

Philip runs through a sort of an analysis of how you minimise the risk to society and he makes some very powerful points about the need to align grand strategy with law, which forces those of us who are practising politicians to ask ourselves some pretty tough questions. And I, apart from having been a journalist who wrote every day about the now, am now a politician who has to deal with immediate problems. So in that respect I think I am in the position that lots of politicians, policymakers and journalists are in, allowing ourselves to focus on the immediate threat. Philip provides a necessary corrective to that by saying “OK, that’s understandable but let’s look at the bigger issues that you’re going to have to address because whatever happens in the specific campaign that al-Qaeda is waging at the moment, these structural vulnerabilities will remain.”

But one of the things that I fear about the current sort of political conversation is that when it comes to dealing with the immediate threat, lots of people don’t do their homework about Islamism and the ideology that ­animates Al-Qaeda. We could all form a judgment about what was required in order to make our societies more resilient and we might reach a consensus there but unless politicians are aware of what the ideological wellspring of these attacks is, unless they are aware of what the authentic root causes are and what the bogus root causes are then we are likely along the way to make mistakes that will only make our lives more difficult.

PB: I don’t think right now any of the great states that are combating terrorism integrate that tactical strategy with a larger grand strategy. We tend to think about grand strategy as a matter of inter-state conflict because it has been for five centuries. So when people write about geopolitics or geostrategic visions, terrorism is more of an annoyance than it is part of the large landscape. I think that’s a mistake. When I was working in the Carter Administration I was living a few blocks away from the White House and one of my classmates from law school came to visit. Every morning he would walk me to the White House just to chat and accompany me. He had been an architecture student as an undergraduate at Harvard and as we’d walk along I’d be staring at the cement thinking about what was happening in the office and he would try and get me to look up to point out the architraves and the facades of these beautiful buildings.

Well, he was there for a week and for four or five days after he left I would walk to the House and I would look up at these lovely buildings. Then I noticed that every day after he left my eyes got lower and lower and lower until finally a week later I was back to staring at the cement again. I think there is an almost irresistible pull for people in government away from the horizon and towards the next step. It is very hard to combat. With a problem as novel as this, if we don’t raise our sights we run the risk of taking decisions; decisions that look so much like each other from a close perspective but they will take us to completely different worlds five or 10 years down the line. We look at decisions as we look at our shoes. They seem separated by trivial distances but when played out and set into motion, bureaucracies, budgets and alliances can just as easily entrap us as empower us.

MG: People who write about terrorism have a responsibility to be clear about the terms we use, clear about the particular challenges we face, clear about what’s achievable and what is going to take far longer. You use the phrase “the long war” essentially to describe the ideological conflicts that divided the 20th century and then you go on to mention the fact that, funnily enough, the Defence Department chose to describe the war on terror as a “long war”. And whatever mistakes Rumsfeld may have made, that at least I felt was useful in making the point that in attempting to deal with the threat that we face from al-Qaeda it wasn’t going to be the case that this was like Malaya or dealing with an insurgency that might be familiar to people who were looking at colonial wars or wars against any of the national liberation movements that sprang up from 1945 to 1990. In spelling out that it was likely to be long, Rumsfeld began to openup the debate. But there was a chance for leaderers on both sides of the Atlantic to spell out the precise nature of the ideological challenge that we faced and in securing public consent for the sorts of changes that we needed to make, but that chance and a lot of that energy were dissipated. And one of the tragedies, looking at our own country, was that Tony Blair only spelled out the ideological nature of Islamism, its roots within the Muslim brotherhood and its challenge to the West and the Islamist analysis of what was wrong with the Middle East very late in his premiership. And unfortunately, because of what had gone wrong in Iraq, by that stage he was no longer a trusted witness as far as most people were concerned. So they weren’t listening.

If I look at the past four or five years in the war on terror there are people who have done the right thing by their own lights in a number of ways but it does worry me that we haven’t had statesmen leading a consensus to enable us to see precisely what the nature of the contemporary threat is. There’s a broader concern I have as well. If you look both to America and to the European Union, do we have political leaders who have outlined with precision the nature of the threat? Who have explained to their electorates the profound difference between Islam, a great religion, and Islamism, an ideology? Who have explained the seamless nature of the threat and – as your book explains – the way in which spontaneous attempts to commit acts of terror here are nearly always foiled, but when you have a group in Europe that connects with a network, the al-Qaeda network in Pakistan or Afghanistan, then you have real danger? And I don’t think that that appreciation is there in the public mind.

PB: Though of course I live a good deal in this country I can’t really speak of the public mind here; but in terms of its leadership I always thought that Tony Blair was miles ahead of any other leader in Europe and certainly miles ahead of the administration in my own country. He may, as you say, have explained later than one hoped, but I was so thrilled when he did articulate his position and if it was late for you it was earlier than anybody else. I would also say about “the long war” that it’s a historian’s idea. It is therefore a retrospective idea. I got a cartoon from someone as a gift. It was a Spanish cartoon and it showed a man getting out of bed and his wife is still in bed, he’s putting his trousers on and he says: “Darling, I’m off to the 30 Years War.” You really can’t say this is a long war until it’s almost over. But what you can say, and I may be wrong about this, is that the first historical epoch of this war, the war against Al-Qaeda, will not be the last.

DJ: You have no doubt that al-Qaeda will be defeated?

PB: Yes. In fact, al-Qaeda is being defeated. But I’m not at all sure we are winning the war against terror.

MG: Yes, I do agree with that because I do think that there are demonstrable gains that we’ve made in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re reversible but they are demonstrable and that’s helpful. We have a very difficult situation in Pakistan but we also know that we have allies there. One of the things I’ve tried to argue, and I don’t know how helpful this is, is that al-Qaeda is not the only Islamist terror group and that with Hamas and Hizbollah you have organisations that don’t consider themselves to be kin to al-Qaeda but they have a common ideological root in people like al-Banna and the writing of Qutb and others. When it comes to appreciating the nature of the threat we face, while there’s always a tendency to compartmentalise conflicts, the war in Iraq, the struggle in Afghanistan, the Middle East, actually it’s helpful to see the ideological parentage of these groups and to appreciate why it is that they act in the way that they do.

For example, if you’re looking at someone like Mohammed Atta [one of the 9/11 hijackers], he was horrified by what he saw as the Westernisation, the West’s toxification of the Arab city, the Arab townscape. It’s similar to the way in which Qutb was horrified by Western culture, which he encountered when he visited the United States, and reinforces your point that every terrorism is a sort of dark mirror image of a particular cultural development. It also helps us to understand that when you’re dealing with Hamas or Hizbollah or al-Qaeda they’re not simply objecting to a particular territorial boundary or a particularly, as they see it, inequitable distribution of resources in the world; there’s a deep cultural rage or anger that they have towards an idea of the West or an ideal of freedom. They’re defending a mythologised version of their culture, but they’re defending a version of their culture against what they see as Western liberal pollution.

PB: I think that’s exactly right. You might say that Michael Gove is presenting the demand side of the problem. “Who are the terrorists? What are their objectives? What are the cultural sources of their desire for revenge, their anger?” And that I push more on the supply side: “What can we do when we don’t know who the terrorists are?” After all, we still don’t know who committed the anthrax attacks. “What steps can we take when the nature or the source of the threat is ambiguous or maybe vague or maybe unknown?” But I think these two approaches are rather like the two parts of a pair of scissors: neither really works without the other.

MG: There’s been a lot of concentration obviously on questions of grand strategy – should the West have intervened here or there? Then or now? But of course you quite rightly point out that law has to govern international relations to an extent and that law crucially governs how we deal with the terrorist threat domestically. And of course we’ve had a debate in this country about detention without charge and so on but one of the things that strikes me, and I don’t know if you think this is fair, is that we’re all familiar with the critique of Guantánamo, and it’s a powerful and justified one, but it’s rare that the critics of Guantánamo say “OK, we’re dealing with combatants who deliberately operate outside the Geneva rules, who deliberately force us to think about conflict in a new way. What is the jurisprudence that should govern that?” And the genuine concern that I have is that for people who both want to see the rule of law preserved and who can see that there is a new type of threat, there is very little on the other side of the debate. There are very few attempts by people to say: “OK, this is how we develop law, this is how we develop jurisprudence to deal with it.”

PB: I think that’s exactly right and it’s one of the more distressing aspects of the way we address the problem. Law is the first and last stop-off for the decision maker. We don’t usually think of it that way, particularly people in the academy think tanks don’t think that way. But in the government, when a plane is shot down, when civilians are kidnapped, when some kind of extortionate threat is presented, the first thing you do is you see what the law provides, to see if your adversary has transgressed an international law. If conflict ensues and you are fortunate enough to prevail you go back to the law again and you say: “How can I compose this conflict on terms that are favourable to my interests?” So it is not the case in international relations that international law plays no role – it plays a crucial role. But when it becomes unstuck, in a strategic context, it forces the debate into two unprofitable and self-destructive channels. One is, as Michael was pointing out, the insistence on a law that does not contemplate the phenomena it addresses. I very much feel the Geneva Convention should govern the detention of non-POW combatants. But it is plain to me that the conventions right now deal with this quite clumsily because the language of Common Article 3 really doesn’t contemplate something like a global network of terrorists. The other sort of channel is represented by people who confront a law that is inappropriate or hasn’t kept pace with a changed strategic context and therefore feel that they have to just ignore it, just push it aside.

In a way, these are two halves of the same coin: the analyst who is in denial, who insists on a law that is inappropriate; and the practitioner who throws the law away because it’s inappropriate. I say these two views are self-destructive because they take away our greatest prop, our greatest tool. One of the things I hope will come out of the war on terror is a greater appreciation of the rule of law as a political objective. When you find you are no longer fighting wars to seize territory, to capture resources, to convert people to your ideological point of view or religious sect, I think you’ll find that the objective of warfare, the war aim, is the protection of civilians and I believe that civilians cannot be protected without the rule of law. It is as indispensable to the protection of civilians as, I don’t know, hygiene is to a hospital. You can get everything else right, you can get the best surgeons, the best analysts and you can get the diagnoses spot on but if the environment is polluted and toxic you are still going to lose the patient.

MG: You said that was the most telling criticism of the allies in Iraq. Whatever the arguments about intervention and whatever the arguments about international law that governs intervention in cases like this, we didn’t think enough about putting in place institutions that guaranteed the rule of law for people who had been living without it for 30 years.

PB: It is certainly a telling criticism and one that was so unnecessary. We think of victory as winning, victory in the football game, victory in the chess match, I win, you lose, you win, I lose, right? But victory in warfare is not simply a matter of winning. Victory in warfare is a matter of achieving the war aim. You can win victory on the battlefield and still lose the war aim and you can sometimes have a defeat in battle, as we did in the War of 1812, and still achieve most of your war aims. So in Iraq one of our war aims ought to have been the reintroduction of the rule of law. Losing sight of that meant that we could win a dazzling battlefield victory and still lose the war – and we damn near did lose the war.

MG: The balancing thing I should say now, I suppose, is that it was Churchill who said that “America always does the right thing after it’s exhausted every other possibility”. I now think it’s fair to say that, partly driven by the personality of General Petraeus, partly driven by the assumption of greater responsibility by Iraqi political leaders themselves, we are now moving into – I would hesitate to say a more benign – but certainly a much more optimistic set of circumstances for Iraq in terms of institutions that we’re building there. Would you agree?

PB: I would, although I notice that you were careful to say a few minutes ago that it is reversible and I think that’s right. I think we are in a much more hopeful situation now than we were before the surge. I think it was the right strategy. I and many other people wrote for years that protecting civilians was our war aim, not killing jihadists. But if we were to act recklessly, as we are perfectly capable of doing, because we are emboldened by these experiences, we could still lose the gains we have achieved.

MG: Acting recklessly – is that a concern on your part? That a too precipitate withdrawal might put at risk those gains that we have made?

PB: Yes, but having said that I don’t think either candidate for the presidency would be liable to make that kind of withdrawal. I have the impression that there’s pretty much a consensus, the campaigning may try to?.?.?.

MG: Magnify the differences. Campaigning does that.

PB: But in fact, I can’t imagine either Obama or McCain trying to pull out our forces before they’ve achieved their objective. Nor can I imagine Maliki [the Iraqi Prime Minister] demanding that they be pulled out.

MG: You made the point that the war aims should have been not to maximise the number of dead jihadists but to minimise civilian and other casualties. And indeed, that has become the metric by which this surge has been judged so far relatively successful. That raises a broader question about international law and the responsibility to protect. Traditionalists argue that the UN charter essentially places state sovereignty above almost everything else – the Westphalian system. And the Westphalian system has some surprising defenders even now on both Left and Right, and indeed people like the Chinese government who occupy the simultaneous position that is both Left and Right. But I suspect you, like me, think that that system is out of date. We sometimes have a duty or a responsibility but certainly we should have the freedom to be able to intervene when a state is palpably failing to protect its citizens, to guarantee their survival and to guarantee them the basics. If a state is torturing, presiding over famine, if it’s oppressive and tyrannical and the means exist. But at the moment when I and others advance that case we are told by some people that what we want to do is to rip up international law. Some politicians here still argue that the Iraq war was “illegal”. How do you address that bundle of concerns?

PB: I think there are two ways to conceptualise it and they tend to fall along European and American lines. One way to look at the problem is to say that sovereignty is a legal property conferred by the international community. I refer to it in my book as “translucent sovereignty” because it implies that if the international community feels that the criteria for sovereignty have been violated or are no longer being upheld, it can withdraw the impermeability of the state’s sovereignty, whether it acts through the UN Security Council or perhaps Nato or the Organisation of African Unity. A more American approach says that sovereignty doesn’t descend from the community of states to the state but that it arises from the people – that sovereignty is a consequence of the relationship between a state and its people. When the state acts, not simply not to protect but systematically to destroy a significant population of its own, it has by its own actions thrown away its sovereignty and this is not a matter for the judgment of the community of states, that it is in the hands of the state itself and that therefore it renders itself liable to the electorate. That’s a slightly different view and I sometimes call it “transparent sovereignty”. I use the words “transparent” and “translucent” to contrast it with “opaque sovereignty”, the classical view that you just attributed quite correctly to China. And of course these problems are around us all the time, in Burma, in the Sudan, in Zimbabwe and you see the community of states struggling to find the right international doctrines to deal with it.

Your friends who say that international law is quite clear in this respect, and I’m not saying this aggressively, I believe them to be simply wrong on the law. The law is in a state of flux and the concept of opaque sovereignty cannot account for Kosovo, to take one example; it cannot even account for Haiti. So I’d say we’re in a period of change. Whether we will lodge in a translucent view which I think is closer to the view of your Foreign Office or lodge in a transparent view I don’t know.

DJ: Can I throw this back at you Michael as the politician in the room? I know it’s not your responsibility at the moment but it might one day be. Do you think that, whether we like it or not, when people on Right and Left say “enough intervention, these are not our problems. Let’s retreat back into our own sphere, our own immediate environment. We don’t want to be anybody’s poodle. We don’t want to be dragged into places like Afghanistan by Nato or anybody else”, that is a widely held view? It might even be the majority view at any one time but is it the responsible, statesman-like view?

MG: I don’t believe so, no. I think that almost everyone could think of situations where there would be a moral responsibility to intervene. The locus classicus would be the Holocaust. Once you’ve accepted, as I think more and more people are doing, that you cannot any longer cling to an outdated model of sovereignty that says that what a state does within its own borders is only its business, then various arguments may follow but you’ve accepted the principle that it is legitimate for other nations to intervene. And we know that it’s happened when Tanzania intervened in Uganda, when Vietnam intervened in Cambodia. So there are precedents that we accept and have subsequently been ratified by history. The question then is: do you accept as Philip has outlined that there can be lower thresholds to intervention – that you don’t just require genocide or tremendous human suffering – that there can be lower thresholds, lower barriers of human rights abuse which can trigger or justify intervention?

DJ: Can they be omission as well as commission – allowing famine to take place when it is avoidable?

MG: I believe so. But there is one other strain in Philip’s thinking which I think is fair, which is that when we talk about intervention the standard student thing to say is: “Well, you only intervened in Iraq because of oil. As soon as they discover oil in Zimbabwe then the US marines will be in Bulawayo.” While it is a facile thing to say, as Philip has pointed out, there is a nugget of truth behind it, which is if you’re going to ask a democratic country to commit its troops and put its young men’s lives in danger and to commit taxpayers’ money, then if an action is wholly altruistic you will weary the patience of the electorate and those who are underwriting that investment of blood and treasure. So therefore there is nothing intrinsically wrong in saying we want to intervene for altruistic reasons but there are also reasons of enlightened self-interest why we might wish to secure an energy supply at a reasonable price for the free world or why we might wish to secure regional stability in an area in which we have long-­established interests because it’s perfectly fair for those who are stewards of a country’s destiny to balance altruism and enlightened self-interest. And it’s also the case that if we are going to maintain consent for interventions which are purely altruistic then we’ve got to recognise that people want to know that the foreign policy of the country is being shaped by people who have a keen analysis of their country’s self-interest as well as a moral or ethical view of how power can be used for good.

PB: I agree, but I also think that without some strategic interest it is very hard to sustain a humanitarian intervention. So you end up abandoning local allies and vulnerable populations once the going gets tough.

DJ: What about the problem of pre-emptive war? Where a country is believed to pose a very serious threat – particularly in the case of nuclear weapons but other weapons of mass destruction as well – has that justification for intervention now been irreparably damaged by the perceived view that we got it wrong over Iraq? That is actually still a matter for argument among the experts, but the general population seem to have made their minds up that they were misled; yet we do have the very serious case of Iran, which is not simply posing a direct threat to a close ally and potentially also to us but is also destabilising in the sense that it is forcing all its neighbours to arm themselves in the same way. So we have the problem of proliferation. There are other cases – for example, somebody mentioned Pakistan. If Pakistan were to become a failed state with nuclear weapons, would we feel entitled to intervene?
PB: Well I would begin, I hope this doesn’t strike you as hopelessly pedantic; I would begin by distinguishing between pre-emption, preventive war and preclusion because they’re often melted together in the popular mind. Pre-emption is a well-recognised strategy in international law; it is not unlawful. It depends upon the presence of an imminent attack, an attack that is truly imminent. It does not require the target state to wait for the attack. Preventive war is something altogether different. Preventive war is a belligerency undertaken to prevent a worsening geostrategic or geopolitical ratio or correlation. Pearl Harbour would be a good example of preventive war. And it is pretty generally considered in international law as illegal.

Preclusive war is warfare that is undertaken not in the face of an imminent attack but not unilaterally either. It is undertaken when by legal standards the target state has rendered itself liable to intervention and I suppose Bosnia would be a good example of that. Nobody really thinks, I suppose, that the Serbs in Bosnia threatened Nato (they certainly didn’t threaten Washington) or that the Serbs in Kosovo threatened Washington. One of the problems with the Iraq war, I believe, was the feeling that we had to say, or it was felt by some that they had to say, that an imminent attack was faced by London or by Washington or by New York. Of course this was crazy; it wasn’t true. I don’t mean, by the way, that I think the war was illegal but I do mean that the basis on which some advertised it simply showed the poverty of legal concepts in this area.

MG: It’s not an analogy I’ve used before and it may be completely inept but trying to get Saddam purely on this technical question is like trying to get Al Capone on tax evasion. I’m not saying that possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction is a minor misdemeanour but that because for a variety of reasons we all now know this was the lowest common denominator around which you could secure agreement both within the American administration and broadly within the West and that skewed the whole debate about Iraq. There are historical examples where states, specifically Britain, have intervened to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands. We intervened in the Napoleonic wars to stop the Danish fleet falling into Napoleon’s hands – Canning intervened there. Churchill intervened to sink the French fleet at Oran in 1940 to stop Vichy handing over effective control of the Mediterranean to Hitler and Mussolini. So as a democracy fighting for survival and seeking to demonstrate to our allies that we were serious about fighting a long war, we as a country have taken pre-emptive action to stop weapons falling into the wrong hands. It isn’t a doctrine that was cooked up or confected to justify Iraq. It has a long pedigree and whatever one might argue about those individual actions, history vindicated the people who took them.

Turning specifically to Iran, it is undeniable that the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq leads people to believe that either the evidence that they might be there is confected or hyped or oversold, whatever. The fact that the dossier making the case for intervention is now widely described as a “false prospectus” – and that’s a sort of given – means that there’s a higher threshold if a future British prime minister or a future American president were to say that we absolutely need to take action against Iran. People would say “well, you know you’re the team who cried wolf before” and that means that strictly in terms of politics the West’s leaders face a more difficult challenge this time round.

PB: I’m afraid that’s right. We often ask ourselves what are the most serious intelligence failures since the Cold War and there have been several. Obviously the failure to prevent 9/11 must rank pretty high but I think the misapprehension of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has been the most damaging. As Michael said, it has eroded trust at a time when trust will be the most precious commodity a leadership can bring. Acting for preclusive purposes, acting to prevent the hypothetical, requires an immense amount of trust; perhaps more trust that any leader today has. President Clinton has often said that not intervening in Rwanda was the greatest regret of his eight years in office. Suppose he had intervened, suppose he’d stopped the genocide there, if he had tried to justify it by saying he had saved 800,000 lives no one would have believed him. It sounds preposterous, people would have said: “What? With machetes? Who are you kidding?”