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George Soros Speaks Out

Columbia School of Inter. & Public Affairs Commencement Address
"The War on Terror: Victims Turning Perpetrators"

Commencement Address

Delivered at the Columbia School of International & Public Affairs

by George Soros

Monday, May 17, 2004

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City

Today, you are graduating from the School of† International & Public

Affairs. This ought to be an occasion for celebration.† You have

successfully completed your studies and you are about to enter the

real world.† But the real world is a very troubled place and

international relations are at the core of our troubles.† So it may

be appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on the world you are

about to face.†

Why are we in trouble?† Let me focus on the feature that looms so

large in the current landscape - the war on terror.† September 11 was

a traumatic event that shook the nation to its core.† But it could

not have changed the course of history for the worse if President

Bush had not responded the way he did.† Declaring war on terrorism

was understandable, perhaps even appropriate, as a figure of speech.†

But the President meant it literally and that is when things started

going seriously wrong.

Recently the nation has been shaken by another even pictures of our

soldiers abusing prisoners in Saddam's notorious prison.† I believe

there is a direct connection between the two events.† It is the war

on terror that has led to the torture scenes in Iraq.† What happened

in Abu Ghraib was not a case of a few bad apples but a pattern

tolerated and even encouraged by the authorities.† Just to give one

example, the Judge Advocate General Corps routinely observes military

interrogations from behind a two-way mirror; that practice was

discontinued in Afghanistan and Iraq.† The International Red Cross

and others started complaining about abuses as early as December


It is easy to see how terrorism can lead to torture.

Last summer I took an informal poll at a meeting of eminent Wall

Street investors to find out whether they would condone the use of

torture to prevent a terrorist attack. The consensus was that they

hoped somebody would do it without their knowing about it.

It is not a popular thing to say, but the fact is that we are victims

who have turned into perpetrators.† The terrorist attacks on

September 11 claimed nearly 3,000 innocent lives and the whole world

felt sympathy for us as the victims of an atrocity.† Then the

President declared war on terrorism, and pursued it first in

Afghanistan and then in Iraq.† Since then the war on terror has

claimed more innocent victims than the terrorist attacks on September

11.† This fact is not recognized at home because the victims of the

war on terror are not Americans.† But the rest of the world does not

draw the same distinction and world opinion has turned against us.

So a tremendous gap in perceptions has opened up between us and the

rest of the world.† The majority of the American public does not

realize that we have turned from victims into perpetrators.† That is

why those gruesome pictures were so shocking.† Even today most people

don't recognize their full import.

By contrast, the Bush administration knew what it was doing when it

declared war on terror and used that pretext for invading Iraq. That

may not hold true for President Bush personally but it is certainly

true for Vice President Cheney and a group of extremists within the

Bush administration concentrated in and around the Pentagon.† These

people are guided by an ideology.† They believe that international

relations are relations of power not law and since America is the

most powerful nation on earth, it ought to use that power more

assertively than under previous presidents.† They advocated the

overthrow of Saddam Hussein even before President Bush was

elected and they managed to win him over to their cause after

September 11.

The invasion of Afghanistan could be justified on the grounds that the

Taliban provided Bin Laden and Al Qaeda with a home and a training


The invasion of Iraq could not be similarly justified. Nevertheless,

the ideologues in the administration were determined to pursue it

because, in the words of Paul Wolfowitz, "it was doable."† President

Bush managed to convince the nation that Saddam Hussein had some

connection with the suicide bombers of September 11 and that he was

in possession of weapons of mass-destruction.† When both claims

turned out to be false, he argued that we invaded Iraq in order to

liberate the Iraqi people.

That claim was even more far-fetched than the other two.† If we had

really cared for the Iraqi people we would have sent in more troops

and we would have provided protection not only for the Ministry of

Oil but for the other Ministries and the museums and hospitals.† As

it is the country was devastated by looting.

I find the excuse that we went into Iraq in order to liberate it

particularly galling.† It is true that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant

and it is good to be rid of him.† But the way we went about it will

make it more difficult to get rid of the likes of Saddam in the

future.† The world is full of tyrants and we cannot topple them all

by military action.† How to deal with Kim Jong-il in North Korea or

Mugabe in Zimbabwe or the Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan is the great

unsolved problem of the prevailing world order.† By taking unilateral

and arbitrary action, the United States has made it more difficult to

solve that problem†

I am actively engaged in promoting democracy and open society in many

parts of the world and I can testify from personal experience that it

cannot be done by military means.† In any case, the argument has

become unsustainable after the revelations about the torture of

prisoners.† The symbolism of Saddam's notorious prison is just too

strong.† We claimed to be liberators but we turned into oppressors.

Now that our position has become unsustainable, we are handing over

to local militias in Falluja and elsewhere.† This prepares the ground

for religious and ethnic divisions and possible civil war ‡ la

Bosnia, rather than Western style democracy after we transfer


The big difference between us and Saddam is that we are an open

society with free speech and free elections.† If we don't like the

Bush administration's policies, we can reject him at the next

elections.† Since President Bush had originally been elected on the

platform of a "humble" foreign policy, we could then claim that the

war on terror and the invasion of Iraq constitute a temporary

aberration induced by the trauma of† September 11.

I would dearly love to pin all the blame on President Bush and his

team. But that would be too easy.† It would ignore the fact that he

was playing to a receptive audience and even today, after all that

has happened, a majority of the electorate continues to have

confidence in President Bush on national security matters.† If this

continues and President Bush gets reelected, we must ask ourselves

the question: "What is wrong with us?"† The question needs to be

asked even if he is defeated because we cannot simply ignore

what we have done since September 11.

We need to engage in some serious soul-searching.† The terrorists

seem to have hit upon a weak point in our collective psyche. They

have made us fearful.† And they have found a willing partner in the

Bush administration.

For reasons of its own, the Bush administration has found it

advantageous to foster the fear that September 11 engendered.† By

declaring war on terror, the President could unite the country behind

him.† But fear is a bad counselor.† A fearful giant that lashes out

against unseen enemies is the very definition of a bully, and that is

what we are in danger of becoming.

Lashing out indiscriminately, we are creating innocent victims and

innocent victims generate the resentment and rage on which terrorism

feeds.† If there is a Single lesson to be learned from our experience

since September 11, it is that you mustn't fight terror by creating

new victims.

By succumbing to fear we are doing the terrorists' bidding:† we are

unleashing a vicious circle of violence.† If we go on like this, we

may find ourselves in a permanent state of war.† The war on terror

need never end because the terrorists are invisible, therefore they

will never disappear. And if we are in a permanent state of war we

cannot remain an open society.

The war on terror polarizes the world between us and them.† If it

becomes a matter of survival, nobody has any choice but to stick with

his own tribe or nation whether its policies are right or wrong.†

That is what happened to the Serbs and Croats and Bosnians in

Yugoslavia, that is what happened to Israel, and that is the state of

mind that President Bush sought to foster when he said that those who

are not with us are with the terrorists.††

That attitude cannot be reconciled with the basic principles of an

open society.† The concept of open society is based on the

recognition that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth.†

Might is not necessarily right.† However powerful we are, we may be

wrong.† We need checks and balances and other safeguards to prevent

us from going off the rails.† After September 11, President Bush

succeeded in convincing us that any criticism of the war on terror

would be unpatriotic and the spell was broken only 18 months later

when the Iraqi invasion did get us off the rails.

Now it is not enough to reject the Bush administration's policies; we

must reaffirm the values and principles of an open society. The war

on terror is indeed an aberration.† We must defend ourselves against

terrorist attacks but we cannot make that the overarching objective

of our existence.

We are undoubtedly the most powerful nation on earth today.† No single

country or combination of countries could stand up to our military


The main threat to our dominant position comes not from the outside

but from ourselves.† If we fail to recognize that we may be wrong, we

may undermine our dominant position through our own mistakes.† We

seem to have made considerable progress along those lines since

September 11.

Being the most powerful nation gives us certain privileges but it also

imposes on us certain obligations.† We are the beneficiaries of a

lopsided, not to say unjust, world order.† The agenda for the world

is set in Washington but only the citizens of the United States have

a vote in Congress.† A similar situation, when we were on the

disadvantaged side, gave rise to the Boston Tea Party and the birth

of the United States.

If we want to preserve our privileged position, we must use it not to

lord it over the rest of the world but to concern ourselves with the

well-being of others.† Globalization has rendered the world

increasingly interdependent and there are many problems that require

collective action.† Maintaining peace, law and order, protecting the

environment, reducing poverty and fighting terrorism are among them.†

We cannot do anything we want, but very little can be done without

our leadership or at least active participation. Instead of

undermining and demeaning our international institutions because

they do not necessarily follow our will, we ought to strengthen them

and improve them.† Instead of engaging in preemptive actions of a

military nature, we ought to pursue preventive actions of a

constructive nature, creating a better balance between carrots and

sticks in the prevailing world order.

As graduates of a school of international affairs, I hope you will

have an opportunity to implement this constructive vision of

America's role in the world.

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Re: George Soros Speaks Out

Very eloquent. He truly spells out the loss of status the USA has suffered since Sept. 11th because of the Bush administrations War in Iraq.

The USA needs to be rushing out to help earthquake victims, flood refugees, and to alleviate world hunger. We need to make up for the wrong our country has committed.


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