TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Degrees of Enmity and the “War on Terrorism”

[This essay first appeared in National Interest Online on July 23, 2007. We republish it here because of its attention to the Telos Press Publishing edition of Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan.]

Last Tuesday, the Bush Administration released portions of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland. The first of the “key judgments” of the NIE comes as no surprise to anyone following current events:

We judge the U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic groups and cells, especially al-Qa’ida, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

Although the document goes on to note that “al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities”, it also listed a series of other groups which are responsible for putting the United States “in a heightened threat environment”, including al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Lebanese Hizballah, the “growing number of radical, self-generating cells [among the Muslim population] in Western countries”, and “other, non-Muslim terrorist groups” and “single-issue” groups. Thus the Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the sixteen intelligence community agencies who, sitting together as the National Intelligence Board (NIB), concluded:

We assess that globalization trends and recent technological advances will continue to enable even small numbers of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack—all without requiring a centralized terrorist organization, training camp, or leader.

It is somewhat disconcerting—to say the least—that six years into America’s “Global War on Terror” these platitudes are passed off as an NIE, by definition the intelligence community’s “most authoritative written judgment on national security issues and designed to help U.S. civilian and military leaders develop policies to protect U.S. national security interests.” Thus it is somewhat fortuitous that, at virtually the same time the NIB was reviewing and approving the NIE, Telos Press released a new English translation of Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political. [1] Theory of the Partisan originated in two lectures which the German jurist and political philosopher delivered in Spain in 1962 as his better known The Concept of the Political was being brought back into print. In fact, in the subsequent foreword to the 1963 German edition of The Concept of the Political, Schmitt acknowledged the lacuna in the work pointed out to him by a number of scholars, including the French sociologist and political philosopher Julien Freund and the American political scientist George Schwab: his failure to separate and distinguish three types of enmity—conventional, real and absolute—which correspond to the three political actors (state, traditional partisan and global revolutionary) on the modern world stage. Theory of the Partisan fills that gap in the Schmittian corpus, but is eminently relevant today in evaluating the threats posed by various “terrors.”

Against the backdrop of the post-Westphalia ordering of international relations, Schmitt takes as normative the notion of the “conventional enemy” in which “war was waged between states, between regular state armies and between sovereign bearers of a jus belli, who also in war respected each other as enemies, and did not discriminate against each other as criminals, so that a peace treaty was possible and even constituted the normal, self-evident end of war.”

In Schmitt’s taxonomy, the “real enemy” is qualitatively different from the classical “conventional enemy” of interstate warfare: whereas the latter challenges a state from the outside, the former emerges from within either as a partisan resisting an invader or one seeking to overthrow an oppressor. The partisan is characterized by his “irregularity, increased mobility of active combat, and increased intensity of political engagement”, but he is also bounded by the “telluric” aspect of his mission, the “basic defensive situation” whereby he is bound to a particular land which, in turn, imposes upon him “the limited nature of hostility, spatially evident”, and guards him “against the absolute claim of an abstract justice.” In fact, Schmitt argues that, given the right circumstances, “the partisan easily can transform himself into a good soldier in uniform.”

Finally, there is the “absolute enemy” who is bound by neither the jus publicum Europaeum, which constrains conventional enmity, nor time and space, which delimit real enmity. This is the “revolutionary fighter” who “declares his enemy to be a criminal, and that all concepts of right, law and honor are ideological swindle.” Thus, unlike the partisan whose combat is simultaneously concrete and defensive, the revolutionary foe fights for an abstraction and his theatre of operations is global. Writing in his time, Schmitt singled out Lenin as a theorist for absolute enmity for having “turned the real enemy into an absolute enemy”, and one wonders if, were he expounding today, he might not alight upon Sayyid Qutb or one of the other firebrands of Islamism. Compounding ideology, Schmitt continued, was the fact that “technical-industrial development has intensified weapons of men to weapons of pure destruction.” Conversely, “such absolute weapons of mass destruction require an absolute enemy.”

While Schmitt is a polemical figure—his self-serving “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” volte-face with respect to the Nazis after failing to persuade President von Hindenburg to crush them will forever shadow the reputation of one of the leading political theorists of the last century—his analysis of enmity in Theory of the Partisan, now rendered accessible to American readers, deserves study, especially as the NIE attests that the terrorist threat to the United States continues to evolve. In the months and years ahead, decisions have to be made about how resources, always limited in the real world, are to be allocated. (Disappointingly, the “fact sheet” released by the White House alongside the NIE pledged to “work with Congress to ensure that we have the necessary tools and resources to protect the homeland” without any indication of prioritization among the tools and resources.)

Without excusing violence on U.S. personnel or interests in any way—much less giving justification to terrorists—among the factors which ought to be considered is the Schmittian distinction between defensive-oriented acts by “real enemies” and the global, revolutionary ambitions of “absolute enemies.” Even if “small numbers of alienated people” are finding each other and connecting to attack in ways proscribed by the laws of war, do they all necessarily threaten the American homeland, or does the danger emanate primarily from certain ones, specifically those inspired by the radical ideology of global jihadism? And within singular theatres of active combat operation like Iraq, as Jeffrey Stacey notes in the current issue of The National Interest, “the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish groups have fully 33 sub-ethnic groups between them; each contain endemic tribal, religious and class divisions—many infused with more vitriol than the divisions we see played out today on the evening news.” Rather than being lumped together in ambiguous generalizations about “terrorism”, each of these divisions and subdivisions (or at least the “terrorist”, as opposed to the “partisan” ones) needs to likewise be assessed for its enmity type—and thus the specific threat it potentially poses to America and her allies.

While the current terrorist threat is undoubtedly unprecedented, challenging the traditional paradigms of international relations and the contemporary Islamist suicide bomber is certainly imbued with a Weltanschauung that would have been alien to Schmitt’s, both are still nonetheless within the sphere of the political and thus can and ought to be examined strategically in the light of the national geopolitical and security interests of the United States.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.


1. Carl Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, trans. G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2007).

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