Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 688 pp., $35.00.
Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 128 pp., $19.95.
Forging a World of Liberty Under Law: U.S. Security in the 21st Century (Final report of the Princeton Project on National Security, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, 2006), G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter (codirectors).
WHICHEVER U.S. party forms the next administration will have to do so in circumstances where America's capacity for decisive action in the outside world has been greatly diminished, at least compared to the grandiose ambitions which the Bush administration nourished in its first three years in power. Most importantly, Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the immense expenditure of troops and money required to fight even medium-size mass insurgencies-to the extent that America's ability to engage in any additional ground wars is in serious question.
In part, this is because the United States is suffering from the oldest of all syndromes afflicting elderly empires with spoiled elites and debellicized populations: the inability to raise enough troops, largely because of the inability to raise taxes in order to pay for them. In addition, with the partial exceptions of Britain and Canada, most U.S. allies have proved completely worthless in terms of real military or indeed economic assistance.
Largely in consequence of the evident constraints on U.S. ground troops, the Iranian regime can cock snook after snook at Washington, confident that while Iran may be bombed-which would only strengthen the regime further-the United States simply does not have the troops to invade Iran and overthrow them. North Korea comes close behind in its impertinence, and to the extent that Pyongyang has been reined in, this has been largely due not to American but to Chinese pressure.
Both Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated the extreme difficulty of state building, let alone democracy building, in weak and ethnically divided societies. In the Middle East as a whole, the administration's "strategy" for democracy promotion lies in ruins. Iraq and Afghanistan also demonstrate breakdowns of the American policymaking community when it comes to knowledge, insight, planning and prediction regarding particular countries of concern.
This is all the stranger since a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had been a possibility for a decade before 2003. And, as Michael Scheuer and other intelligence veterans have reminded us, in Afghanistan the U.S. government had a reserve of knowledge from the 1980s, which Washington allowed to dissipate almost completely and failed to reactivate even after al-Qaeda had begun murderous attacks on U.S. targets in the late 1990s from the group's bases in Afghanistan. Governments are supposed to have plans for such scenarios, and think tanks are supposed to think about them seriously. Had they not learned the lesson of Vietnam? As Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon official who became a leading antiwar critic, and others have remarked, not one of the senior civilian and military planners of America's engagement in Vietnam could have passed a midterm freshman examination in modern Vietnamese history. The same was true of the planners of the Iraq War and all too many Western writers on the "war on terror." Today, the United States is barely better placed when it comes to real knowledge of other global hot-spot issues like Pakistan, for example.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a quagmire which the United States can neither drain nor abandon. Pakistan, whether under military or civilian rule, demonstrates the difficulty of managing client states when these are impossible to direct, change or overthrow. India is happy to swallow American nuclear largesse while remaining determined to pursue its own quite-contrary interests on key issues-including links with Iran. China's economic growth has put it within realistic hope of superpower status over the next generation and created looming dilemmas for the United States in its economic policy and global strategy. And Russia, which seemed finished as a major player, has made an astonishing recovery, drawing the whole of America's existing geopolitical strategy in Eurasia into question.
Finally, over the past eight years recognition of the monstrous threat of climate change as a result of greenhouse-gas emissions has achieved such an overwhelming scientific consensus that in the end even the Bush administration had to acknowledge its reality. As the report by Sir Nicholas Stern indicated, over the next century this will represent by far the greatest challenge to the existence of the present world political, social and economic order, and already represents "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen." But while the threat is now recognized by a majority of U.S. political elites, most still seem almost hopelessly far from really determined action, least of all on a scale that would spur China and India to curb their own steeply mounting emissions.
Of course, the United States remains by a long distance the greatest player on the world stage, with the largest (though not necessarily the strongest) economy and the only real capacity for any significant global deployment of military force. For all the weakness of its ground forces relative to the demands being put on them, Washington also retains the ability to impose through bombardment shattering costs on any country which attacks the United States or U.S. allies directly. U.S. deterrence is therefore alive and well, against states though not against international terrorist movements. If the United States really has to bring overwhelming force to bear against many places on the map, it can still do so-though not often, and not for long.
What the developments of the past few years indicate is that if the U.S. political establishment wishes to go on exercising effective global power in the long term, it is going to have to make some very hard choices, in terms of raising new resources, of prioritizing certain geopolitical goals over others, and of exercising "strategic patience" with regard to managing infuriating and dangerous situations which are not amenable to quick solution. It will need to husband its limited resources with far greater care, and deploy them with greater discretion. This will require a much-more acute understanding of the situations in particular countries and regions. At the most basic level, U.S. global strategists must follow Sun Tzu's advice to "know your enemy."
THIS SHOULD seem obvious enough. Yet the reality of all too many books on foreign and security policy that emerge from the U.S. establishment is very different. An identikit of a foreign-policy book by many establishment figures goes something like this: set out an ostensibly radical new vision (with a lineup of other senior figures on the back cover to praise its "courage") while studiously avoiding all specific and painful strategic choices. The "vision" itself is tailored so as to appeal to fundamental American national myths in a way that guarantees a measure of universal assent among U.S. reviewers. Climate change is sometimes now addressed but usually in brief box-ticking fashion in the introduction and conclusion, and once again with a studious avoidance of any specific proposals. Foreign countries and regions, and U.S. policy toward them, are not addressed in detail but crammed into some overarching framework, portrayed entirely from a U.S. perspective and too often through U.S. stereotypes. Only rarely is any attempt made to see the world, and U.S. policies, through the eyes of other peoples.
The two books under review unfortunately exemplify many of the faults that I have sketched out. The worst by a long measure is Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century. I say this with regret because Professor Bobbitt is a personally honorable and decent man; but the only use the American military could find for this book would be to drop it on our enemies' heads, because its sheer weight would be bound to produce an impact. It is frightening that after everything that has happened, and everything we should have learned over the past five years, a respected U.S. commentator can still produce a work like this.
As its title suggests, Bobbitt's book is an attempt to understand the world-and to structure the whole of U.S. global policy-through the sole prism of an alleged existential conflict between terrorism and "states of consent," defined essentially not in terms of democracy but of turbocharged free-market capitalism justified with libertarian ideology. As such, it might be called a 688-page exegesis on some of President Bush's more simplistic remarks. Of course, this statement is not wholly false, since al-Qaeda and its closest allies certainly are hostile to democracy, among other things. The problem is what it leaves out, which is everything else of importance about the world in general and the terrorists themselves; and the astonishing fact that in all these pages Dr. Bobbitt never defines clearly what he means either by terrorists or by states of consent.
Dr. Bobbitt argues that "terrorism exists as an epiphenomenon of the constitutional order," and that it is produced by "the liberalization of the global economy, the internationalization of the electronic media, and the military-technological revolution." Its great enemy and target is the "market state of consent" which will replace the present nation-state and whose constitutional order mayEssay Types: Book Review