Strategy and Tactics in Responses to Terrorism, and Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent

by Kenneth Anderson

I know we will be having a discussion of Tom Farer’s book on a grand liberal strategy for dealing with terrorism down the road, but I wanted to note that the general issue of ‘grand strategy’ is at the heart of Philip Bobbitt’s new book, Terror and Consent.  It has deservedly been widely reviewed and highly praised – Ferguson in the New York Times Book Review, for example – “the most profound book on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 – indeed since the end of the cold war.”

My own review of Terror and Consent is out in the Times Literary Supplement this week, and my thanks to the editors there for giving me an unusually generous amount of space and to my editor Toby Lichtig for cutting my, umm, 6000 (!) word review down to something publishable (a long, further expanded and rewritten version will appear in a Syracuse symposium next year in which Philip, I understand, has agreed to take part).  I likewise give the book enthusiastic praise, but I frame the whole discussion somewhat differently.

Much of the discussion of responses to terrorism – even the term “counterterrorism,” understood in a certain way – is about very narrow policy frames and responses.  Much of the genuinely serious discussion of responses to terrorism lies within the narrow confines of cost benefit analysis; this is true of serious analyses from the left (Cass Sunstein’s superb Worst Case Scenarios, for example) and the right (Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule’s Terror in the Balance, as discussed here at OJ).  Moreover, the cost benefit analysis itself is situated in a still narrower frame – that of simply getting from day to day without a new attack, a cost benefit analysis focused on merely preventing the next event – something that in the TLS review, I call “event-specific catastrophism” (so to demonstrate that there is no practical concept that a professor cannot turn into a Big Category!).

Far be it from me to underplay cost benefit analysis – although I add that, as a corporate finance professor, it had never occurred to me that net present value and discount rates could turn out to be the grand theories of law.  I always thought of them as useful tools, of course, but not exactly the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven – which is, weirdly, in the ascendence of the New Utilitarian Thought in American law, more or less what they turn out to be.  Topic for a different discussion.

The problem with cost benefit analysis and event specific catastrophism in the matter of anti-terrorism, as I say in the TLS review, the difficulty with this “policy minimalism,” is that, as Bobbitt observes, it is

relentlessly tactical.  Even when not event-specific … it is by its very nature reactive.  Cost-benefit analysis does not propose solutions; it evaluates proposed solutions offered by other processes.  It is not a strategic form of thinking.

By contrast, Terror and Consent is emphatically strategic in its conception and argument.  That’s what makes it interesting and important.  Agree or disagree, in whole or in part – and there is a lot there – it says, the heck with policy minimalism aimed at finding the lowest common denominator of threat protection on a rolling, day by day basis; let’s look for larger and longer term policies.  Other people have likewise offered strategic analysis and prescriptions, and we’ll get a chance to consider Tom Farer’s down the road, but Terror and Consent is far and away the most rigorous and far-sighted I have read.  It is not an easy book to read – I read it twice, cover to cover, before feeling comfortable writing a review.  But it repays handsomely.

4 Responses

  1. Response…
    I’ve put together a short, selected bibliography on “terrorism” that looks at the subject from various disciplinary perspectives. I will send it along to anyone interested.

    What do you think of Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want (2006)?

    And by way of complementing Bobbitt’s book, we might read Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (2008).

  2. Patrick, I’d be grateful to see it.  Can you send it along to my school email, kanders [at] wcl [dot] american [dot] edu?  thanks.

  3. Response…

    Yes, of course: done.

  4. I just found this pretty awsome article,  <a href=””>The Last Patriot</a>, that sheds some light on the first encounters america had with Jihadist back in the late 1700s. Its a really interesting article worth checking out.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.