2003-12-26 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

George Vs. George
The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

George Vs. George

In December’s Atlantic Monthly, noted capital markets speculator and financier George Soros took George W. Bush to task for threatening world peace. According to Soros, Bush’s reaction to the attacks of 9/11 was a radical departure from past U.S. policies, destabilizing and likely to separate us from the rest of the world at a time when we desperately need the world behind us. The financier, whose claims to fame include vast wealth accumulated through some very smart trading activity and a college stint with the late philosopher Karl Popper, sees this all as reflecting the ascendance of a problematic "neo-conservative" view of the world . . . a view that wants to proactively head off problems and push, with force if necessary, democratic change around the globe. Soros contrasts this sharply with his own Popperian idea that we can never hope to have the whole truth and so must avoid any actions or policies that reflect a belief in our own certainty.

Soros criticizes Bush administration policies for placing American power above the idea of law (as exemplified by Bush’s willingness to go to war against Iraq without international sanction via the U.N.). Yet this is certainly the wrong take on what has occurred since 9/11. The Bush position is that we have played the diplomatic containment game for half a century and things have only gotten worse as manifested by the events leading up to and including 9/11. Thus a change in course is called for.

Soros’ own prescription, to replace the Bush policies with heightened, proactive internationalism including creation of international groups to pursue and try to head off terrorists along with increased aid packages to different areas of the world in order to improve living conditions and change minds, are really nothing new. In fact, aid packages and international organizations already exist precisely because we have been developing and implementing them for the past 50 or so years. So Soros’ solution is really just more of the same old medicine.

Still, he’s convinced that the Bush willingness to undertake a go-it-alone strategy, if necessary, places us on the side of history’s militarists. Perhaps it would be instructive, then, to look more closely at these policies.

In Iran and Korea, Bush has not initiated military or other so-called unilateral action. Instead he is pursuing multilateral policies along with diplomacy at the U.N. More, even in the matter of Iraq, the Bush administration initially placed the question before the U.N. Security Council. That Bush could not get agreement there because of the self-interested vetoes of a few countries ought not to be construed as reason for America to fail to act if, in fact, a genuine threat existed. Contrary to the views of some Democratic presidential contenders (Howard Dean jumps to mind), it would be unconscionable for any American president to follow a policy of obtaining U.N. "permission" before acting in the interests of the nation he is charged with safeguarding.

Of course, Soros argues, with others, that there really wasn’t a threat at all. Given the failure to uncover the predicted wmd to date, it looks as though this expectation may have been based on misinformation at best. If so, Soros argues, the Bush administration must have either misled us or been foolishly misled itself. But this is to fail to look closely at the nature of the threat. Since his invasion of Kuwait and before, Saddam Hussein had been a danger in terms of his willful aggression, his manifest ambitions to overrun and dominate his part of the world, and his demonstrated interest in, and possession and use of, wmd against his own people and others. More, Saddam was a particularly brutal dictator (albeit not the only one of these around).

The idea that Saddam was a threat to the United States arises from all these factors together. After the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam was "contained" through a regime of U.N. imposed sanctions that were causing hardship and, if international relief organizations had it right, untold suffering to the people of Iraq. In fact, the will to maintain the sanctions was rapidly eroding in the years leading up to the events of 9/11/2001. Aside from the numerous violations of the sanctions that were going on over those years, more and more voices were being raised to remove the sanctions entirely and let Iraq return to normal. But, given  Saddam’s history and attitudes, it was very likely he was only laying low until he could return to his earlier dreams of conquest and dominance in his region.

Was this a threat to us? In light of the events of 9/11, President Bush and his administration concluded that it was. Why? Because Saddam was also a supporter of terrorism who funded terrorists in some parts of the world, implemented his own terrorist acts through his agents, and had high level dealings with al Qaeda operatives and affiliated terrorist groups. Sure we have not yet found a smoking gun showing Saddam was connected with 9/11 and we may never have that. But is one really needed? If the reason for going after Saddam was a claim that he was involved in the attacks of 9/11, then one would have to say "yes." But THAT is not the claim and never was. The issue was the threat he posed to us going forward, if allowed to continue to operate in the Middle East, particularly once the possibility of sanctions and ongoing inspections were taken off the table . . . which was fast becoming only a matter of time.

There is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad, even if we acknowledge, as Soros wants us to, that none of us has a lock on the truth. Indeed, just believing in the superiority of the Popperian notion of the "open society" implies that such societies are right while tyrannical regimes are not. And if the "open society" is right, then it’s surely wrong to try to shut such societies down . . . which is precisely the aim of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and tyrants like Saddam Hussein. Sometimes, in the real world, things are not as crystal clear as we’d like. But Soros’ suggestion that Bush’s policies are wrong because they offend and annoy others who would rather we consulted with them on every action and gave them a veto over all our decisions fails to take account of the fact that there really is a right and a wrong and that sometimes even an American President can know it.

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