America after 9/11: victims turning perpetrators

George Soros
19 May 2004

It is not a popular thing to say, but the fact is that we in America are victims who have turned into perpetrators. The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 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 terror”, and pursued it first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.

This war on terror has claimed more innocent victims than the 11 September attacks. This fact is not recognised 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 realise that we have turned from victims into perpetrators. That is why the gruesome pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison are so shocking. Even today, most people in the United States don’t recognise 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 his vice-president, Dick Cheney, and the 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 11 September.

The invasion of Afghanistan could be justified on the grounds that the Taliban provided Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida 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 the deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, “it was doable.” President Bush managed to convince the nation (first) that Saddam Hussein had some connection with the 11 September suicide bombers and (second) 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 just for the oil ministry but also for the other ministries as well as museums and hospitals. As it is, looters devastated the country’s institutions in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.

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 Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Saparmurat Niyazov, 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 the 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 Fallujah and elsewhere. This prepares the ground for religious and ethnic divisions and possible civil war in the manner of Bosnia, rather than western-style democracy after we transfer sovereignty on 30 June 2004.

The big difference between Saddam and us 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 election in November 2004. 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 11 September.

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. 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 re-elected, 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 11 September.

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 11 September engendered. By declaring war on terror, the President could unite the country behind him. But fear is a bad counsellor.

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 11 September, 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.

So 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.

The United States is 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 recognise 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 11 September.

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.

This article is an extract from a commencement address George Soros delivered to the Columbia School of International & Public Affairs on 17 May 2004 at Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City. The full text is published by Alternet.org

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. Globalisation 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 pre-emptive actions of a military nature, we ought to pursue preventive actions that ensure America plays a constructive role in the world.

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