Playing Into Their Hands

George Soros heads Soros Fund Management and is the founder of a global network of foundations dedicated to supporting open societies. His most recent book is "The Bubble of American Supremacy."

The Bush administration is in the habit of waging personal vendettas against those who criticize its policies, but bit by bit the evidence is accumulating that the invasion of Iraq was among the worst blunders in U.S. history.

If the administration cannot recognize and admit its mistakes, it cannot correct its policies.

War is a false and misleading metaphor in the context of combating terrorism. The metaphor suited the purposes of the administration because it invoked our military might. But military actions require an identifiable target, preferably a state. As a result, the war on terrorism has been directed primarily against states like Afghanistan that are harboring terrorists, not at pursuing the terrorists themselves.

Imagine for a moment that Sept. 11 had been treated as a crime against humanity. We would have pursued Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (hopefully with more success), but we would not have invaded Iraq. Nor would we today have our military struggling to perform police work in full combat gear, getting soldiers killed in the process.


This does not mean that we should not use military means to capture and bring terrorists to justice when appropriate. But to protect ourselves against terrorism, we need precautionary measures, awareness and intelligence gathering -- all of which ultimately depend on the support of the populations among which terrorists operate. Declaring war on the very people we need to enlist against terrorism is a huge mistake. We are bound to create some innocent victims, and the more of them there are, the greater the resentment and the better the chances that some victims will turn into the next perpetrators.

On Sept. 11, the United States was the victim of a heinous crime, and the whole world expressed spontaneous and genuine sympathy. Since then, though we Americans are loath to admit it, the war on terrorism has claimed more innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq than were lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The comparison is rarely made in the U.S.: American lives are valued differently from the lives of foreigners, but the distinction is less obvious to people abroad.

The war on terrorism as pursued by the Bush administration is more likely to bring about a permanent state of war than an end to terrorism. Terrorists are invisible; therefore, they will never disappear. They will continue to provide a convenient pretext for the pursuit of American supremacy by military means. That, in turn, will continue to generate resistance, setting up a vicious circle of escalating violence.

The important thing to remember about terrorism is that it is a reflexive phenomenon. Its impact and development depend on the actions and reactions of the victims. If the victims react by turning into perpetrators, terrorism triumphs in the sense of engendering more and more violence. That is what the fanatically militant Islamists who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks must have hoped to achieve. By allowing a “war” on terrorism to become our principal preoccupation, we are playing straight into the terrorists’ hands: They -- not we -- are setting our priorities.

The United States is the most powerful country on Earth. While it cannot impose its will on the world, nothing much can be done in the way of international cooperation without its leadership or at least active participation.

The United States has a greater degree of discretion in deciding the shape of the world than anybody else. Other countries don’t have a choice: They must respond to U.S. policy. This imposes a unique responsibility on the United States: Our nation must concern itself with the well-being of the world. The United States is the only country that can take the lead in addressing problems that require collective action: preserving peace, assuring economic progress, protecting the environment and so on. Fighting terrorism and controlling weapons of mass destruction also fall into this category.

By using the war on terror as a pretext for asserting our military supremacy, we are embarking on an escalating spiral of terrorist/ counterterrorist violence. If instead we were to set an example of cooperative behavior, we could not only alleviate poverty, misery and injustice in the world, but also gain support for defending ourselves against terrorism. We will be the greatest beneficiaries if we do so.