Philip Bobbitt: The presidents' brain

Four US leaders have sought his advice. Now Barack Obama is speaking like a disciple. So, who is this man Henry Kissinger calls 'the outstanding political philosopher of our time'? Cole Moreton meets... Philip Bobbitt
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The Independent Online

'Shall we break with convention," he says, "and have champagne?" It is 10 o'clock in the morning, but hey, why not? "It will only go to waste," says Philip Bobbitt, pulling a bottle from the fridge in his apartment, which happens to share one of the great addresses of London.

Albany, just off Piccadilly and next to the Royal Academy, was built in the 1770s and has been home to notable figures including Byron and Gladstone. The 59-year-old Texan lawyer now pouring fizz into glasses owns the freehold on his flat. It must be worth millions, but a "set" here can only be obtained by someone with immaculate social connections. Professor Bobbitt certainly has those, spanning the Atlantic.

Henry Kissinger calls him "the outstanding political philosopher of our time." The champagne is left over from the launch party for his new book, Terror and Consent, which Tony Blair – a Bobbitt fan – describes as "required reading for political leaders".

The nephew of Lyndon Johnson, Philip Bobbitt served as a special adviser to every American president from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. You may not know his name, but this soft-spoken, dapper man has had great influence on world affairs. And he is not done yet.

Barack Obama comes to Britain this week as part of a world tour designed to show that his critics are wrong and he does have big ideas on foreign policy. He laid them out for the first time last Tuesday, in a speech in Washington. Much of it sounded like pure Bobbitt.

America needs to rebuild its reputation, said Obama. He promised to withdraw from Iraq with care, take climate change seriously and deal with the likes of China in a much less confrontational way. America would work more closely with its old friends in Europe and democracies across the world, he said, "to face down the threats of the 21st century". All of which echoed themes in Terror and Consent.

But there are much bigger, far more radical ideas in there too, which are interesting both Obama and John McCain. The boldest, declared on the front cover, is that everything we think we know about terrorism and how to wage war on it is wrong. "Exhibit A might well be Iraq," says Bobbitt. Easing back into a leather armchair, he cuts the end from a huge cigar, lights it and blows smoke rings. "When Tommy Franks [the US general in charge of the invasion] said major combat operations had ended, only 146 coalition lives had been lost. He wasn't lying. He truly believed it. He thought he had victory because he had captured a capital, the political leader was in flight, he had run up the flag, the army had surrendered, he had overrun their territory. It's over, right? That's what you do in war." Not any more. The aim must now be not just to acquire territory and defeat insurgents, but to protect citizens as well. "Not appreciating that has been a costly and deadly mistake."

On the wall is a print of Napoleon reviewing his troops. On the mantelpiece is a wooden cannon. On the shelves are books about empires and dynasties. But there is nothing bombastic about the professor in person. Quite the opposite. His manners are elegant: when I say something he considers very stupid indeed he pauses before telling a long story about a "very famous man whose name I shall not give" who once said something similar, which the professor is afraid to say he did not find "a particularly nuanced or sophisticated analysis". Ouch.

Asked about Obama, he praises McCain as "a fine man". But then adds: "At this party last night, the enthusiasm for Obama was universal. People in Europe and Britain are really prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt." By "people" I am not sure he means much more than the small gathering of historians, lawyers and commentators at his soirée. But letting that pass, his views are taken very seriously at the highest level. Why? Because he is an acknowledged expert on constitutional law, military history and international strategy. Because he understands the realities of power: as a young man, Bobbitt helped Jimmy Carter to negotiate with hostage-takers in Iran; he was legal counsel to the Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair; he served on Bill Clinton's National Security Council. But mostly because Western leaders know their "war on terror" is going badly awry, and here is a man from their own world willing and able to say why.

War aims must change, he says, because nations are changing. We have been living in nation states, established to make the people living within their borders better off. They are evolving into market states, which set out to give maximum opportunity to their people by participating in global trade. They need global stability. And as nations change, so does the nature of the terror they face. "As states become devolved and decentralised, privatising and outsourcing their activities, with global interests, so we see a kind of terror that is devolved, decentralised, privatised, outsourcing and global."

Controversially, he believes natural disasters and terrorist attacks must be tackled by the same means. When something happens for which the cause is not immediately clear, like the day the New York electricity grid collapsed, he says: "You want to deploy the security and intelligence forces right away. You don't want to wait and see if it is terrorists." He has come up with a new twist on the old nonsensical phrase: "This is not a war against terrorism or terrorists. These are wars on terror that can be fought by the co-ordinated use of national security agencies."

Bobbitt urges a new global alliance between democratic nations, able to react quickly and decisively, using military force where necessary. This springs from the belief that the United Nations is no longer up to the job, and is an idea interesting both Obama and McCain. Of course, America would take the lead. That is assumed. But isn't that actually the problem? Isn't this idea that America somehow has the moral authority to go round telling the rest of the world what to do offensive and outdated? "Well then," says Bobbitt with the weary patience of a scholar speaking to a dim student, "you should try life without it. Would you prefer an America with a global reach and global interests but no moral authority, and no interest in maintaining it?"

Hasn't that authority been damaged lately? "There is a good deal of evidence for that, yes," he concedes. He is shy of criticising the current President in public, but deep in his book is an indictment of the "bewildering incompetence" of Bush's behaviour in Iraq, his dealings with international organisations and in the US, "most notably after Katrina". This White House has shown a "willingness to cut corners where matters of consent and law are concerned" he writes. As a result, the stature of the US has diminished. Its "once dazzling" fortunes are in "vertiginous decline".

You can feel the pain in those words, from a man whose family is proud of the part it played in the creation of America's good name. His uncle, Lyndon Johnson, became President after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, and passed civil rights law. "He was an enormous presence in my life," says Bobbitt, whose mother, Rebekah, was LBJ's elder sister. "Christmas and Thanksgiving were all with Uncle Lyndon and my mother's brothers and sisters. All the cousins were raised together. When other children were going to church on Sunday, we were watching the political programmes and my mother was giving out Bloody Marys with lunch. It was that kind of life." An only child, he went to Princeton, then Yale. After that he learned about real life from a brilliant but irritable and demanding judge who became his mentor. "I had been very spoiled. Treated as a kind of princeling. I had never had anybody confront me about that until then."

While still a young man, Bobbitt was called to work for President Carter. He slept on a couch outside the Oval Office during the hostage crisis. When the captives were let go, on Ronald Reagan's inauguration day, Bobbitt was waiting in the White House with a colleague. "When the news came we walked into the President's study and drank his champagne. Then we walked, arm in arm, out the West Wing corridor. Some time during the night, all the photos of the First Family had been switched. It was a sunny, glorious day. Having been up several nights running, and not having eaten that day, we were both a little drunk."

Although a natural Democrat, he impressed the Vice-President during the Reagan years and worked with George Bush in the White House. But he was not wanted by George W, under whom Washington has become a much more partisan place. "The atmosphere is appalling."

Instead he concentrated on writing increasingly influential books. Terror and Consent has attracted vicious criticism from both left and right, from people who, he says, misunderstand it. He is not in favour of torture, as has been reported. "It must be against the law. Full stop." And he does not want to rip up the American Constitution, as the right wing believes. One US talkshow host called him part of "a poisonous inbred aristocracy" and "an enemy of the republic".

Most of it appears not to disturb his life, though. Next month he will leave London to lecture in New York, at Columbia, and live in his "pretty" apartment on the Upper East Side. In spring he will be in Texas, where he has another home, teaching with his friend James Steinberg ... "although I expect he will be national security adviser to President Obama by then". Bobbitt may pop back to London for Christmas, but will spend it working. "Christmas is a time for the family. I have no family."

The professor was married once, but only for a few years, and some of that time was spent away from his wife working at Oxford. "Sometimes I think this was one of the happiest periods of writing in my life, but at the time I was rather lonely." Asked if he is in a relationship now, he pauses, sucks his cigar and says: "It's complicated." There are, however, no children. "That is the only thing about my life I do regret. But, you know... I have not given up hope yet."

Each summer finds him in London, writing. "I find this a propitious place to work." And well he might, in Albany. He has no complaints. "I have a gene for happiness. At college, I paced the campus at night to walk off the happiness and the energy."

He has led a charmed and privileged life, I dare to suggest. He can apply his impeccably educated mind to affairs of state without having to shoulder the burdens of office. The consequences of the hard decisions he urges leaders to make remain distant. The battlefields and bombs are far away. "Yes," says a serene Philip Bobbitt, the man the presidents read. "It is easier to be happy if you have had all the opportunities I have had."

A life of influence

1948 Philip Chase Bobbitt, born 22 July in Temple, Texas.

1971 AB, Princeton University. 1975 JD, Yale Law School.

1978 Co-writes 'Tragic Choices'.

1979 Associate counsel to President Jimmy Carter.

1982 Writes 'Constitutional Fate'.

1983 PhD, Oxford University.

1987 Legal counsel to the US Senate Iran-Contra Committee. Writes 'Democracy and Deterrence'

1989 Writes 'US Nuclear Strategy'.

1990 Counsellor on international law at the US State Department under President George Bush Snr.

1991 Writes 'Constitutional Interpretation'.

1993-2001 Served President Bill Clinton in various roles, including as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council.

2002 Published 'The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History'.

2008 Writes 'Terror and Consent', published by Allen Lane.

Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Teaches at Columbia Law School in New York and the University of Texas.