The War on Terror: Victims Turning Perpetrators

Commencement Address to the Columbia School of International & Public Affairs
Monday, May 17, 2004
Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City

A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by George Soros

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 event: 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 2002.

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 ground. 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 à la Bosnia, rather than Western style democracy after we transfer sovereignty.

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 might. 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.

Thank you.

A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION

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