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Reconsidering the war on terror

By George Soros (for Safe Democracy)

George Soros challenges the concept of war on terror and says that it has been a tragic misconception: it has not prevented terrorist attacks around the world yet it has diverted the American attention from other vital tasks. He adds that it has damaged the American dominant position in the world and endangered its open society. Soros thinks that only by forging a new consensus on fighting the terrorists can the US correct these mistakes and regain the pre-eminent position in the world. In order to convince people that the war on terror is the wrong framework, we must formulate a better one. Here he explains how.


[1] George Soros is an investor, philanthropist, liberal political activist, and philosopher. Currently, he is the chairman of the Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Institute. He is also a former member of the Board of Directors of the US Council on Foreign Relations. [1]

I SHOULD LIKE TO CHALLENGE THE VERY CONCEPT of the “war on terror”. It is a metaphor that needs to be challenged because it has been accepted uncritically and applied literally. If anybody dares to say that there is something wrong with framing the struggle against terrorism as “the war on terror,” it is immediately assumed that there is something wrong with him. So nobody dares to say it yet it needs to be said because the war on terror as we have waged it since 9/11 has done more harm than good. It has not prevented terrorist attacks around the world yet it has diverted our attention from other vital tasks, damaged our dominant position in the world and endangered our open society. We must find a better way, a new consensus on fighting terrorism.

NOT ONLY MILITARY FORCE
Why is it so harmful to frame the struggle against terrorists as the “war on terror”? Because this metaphor leads us to rely too much on military force and not enough on other means of countering the terrorist. The use of military force is a necessary element in the struggle. The invasion of Afghanistan was justified. That is where Bin Laden lived and Al Qaeda has its training camps. But the invasion of Iraq, as we now all know, can not be similarly justified.

When we use military force we risk playing into the hands of terrorists. Terrorism is abhorrent because it kills innocent civilians for political goals. War, by its nature, claims innocent victims. By using military force, we run the risk of doing the same thing as the terrorists. In this respect, the war on terror is even worse than an ordinary war because terrorists try to remain invisible so the chances of hitting innocent victims are even greater.

Innocent victims generate sympathy and outrage. We are outraged by 9/11; by retaliating in a way that creates innocent victims we are outraging others. That is the response the terrorists wanted to provoke. The “war on terror” as we are now pursuing it with an over reliance on military force serves their purposes better than ours.

HOW TO CREATE NEW PROBLEMS
Using the “war” metaphor creates other problems. First, a state of war undermines the normal functioning of the critical process that is the foundation of our democracy. For 18 months after 9/11, any criticism of the President’s policies was considered unpatriotic. It was this suspension of the critical process that allowed President Bush to commit what is perhaps the greatest blunder in American history — the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Second, the sense of emergency associated with war has been used to extend executive powers, infringe civil liberties, run up a budget deficit and neglect other burning issues like global warming.

Third, the way the “war on terror” was conducted –Baghram airbase, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the extraordinary rendition of prisoners to countries like Uzbekistan– violated the principles that had guided America in the past and lost us the moral high ground.

Fourth, we ended up with unsavory allies like President Karimov of Uzbekistan who boiled political prisoners alive and massacred unarmed demonstrators in Andijon.

Finally, the “war on terror” drove a wedge between America and the rest of the world. President Bush’s assertion that we must fight terrorism abroad so that we do not have to fight it at home may have appealed to the public at home but it had the opposite affect abroad. Attitudes toward the US have never been so negative.

A COUNTERPRODUCTIVE WAR
For all these reasons “the war on terror” has proven to be counterproductive in every respect except in enhancing the powers and popularity of the President. Terrorism is a greater threat today than it was when President Bush declared war.

The invasion of Iraq has spawned more insurgents and suicide bombers than there were before. Our power and influence in the world has declined more than in any comparable stretch of time in our history. Before invading Iraq we could project overwhelming power in any part of the world; we cannot do so any more because we are bogged down in Iraq. And we are failing to provide the leadership that the world badly needs on many burning issues.

FORMULATING A NEW FRAMEWORK
Yet, the “war on terror” remains the generally accepted frame for thinking about terrorism. Most people have come to realize that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder, but they still accept the “war on terror” as the obvious response to 9/11. I believe we shall not be able to repair the terrific damage we have suffered in the four years since 9/11 without abandoning the “war on terror” as a catchphrase that justifies misguided policies.

In order to convince people that the “war on terror” is the wrong frame, we must formulate a better one. That is where this conference could make a valuable contribution. I attended a similar conference in Madrid to commemorate the first anniversary of the terrorists attack on that city. The conference was organized by the Club of Madrid, FRIDE and the Safe Democracy Foundation, and it reached a consensus that can be summed up in three points.

THE MADRID AGENDA
First, terrorism is a many-faceted phenomenon and it is difficult to generalize about it except for the one thing that all terrorists have in common: they kill innocent people for political goals. That is a crime against humanity and it cannot be condoned or tolerated, whatever the grievance that is used as its justification.

Second, in dealing with terrorism, we must take great care not to do the same thing as the terrorists and create innocent victims. We must stay within the constraints of the law, even if the laws may have to be modified to deal with terrorists. If we create innocent victims we are liable to reinforce the terrorist threat.

Third, we must foster democratic development in order to provide legitimate avenues for dealing with grievances that otherwise might be exploited by terrorist movements.

A TRAGIC MISCONCEPTION
I believe these are sound principles, much sounder than the “the war on terror”. They could serve as the basis for a new consensus on fighting terrorism. On the first point, that terrorism must not be tolerated, there can be no disagreement. The third point, fostering democratic development, has been wholeheartedly embraced by President Bush. It is on the second point, staying within the constraints of the law and not creating innocent victims, that our policies need to be changed. The “war on terror” creates innocent victims and that helps the terrorists. It sets in motion a vicious circle from which there is not escape without modifying our attitudes.

We are the most powerful nation on earth. No external enemy can defeat us. We can lose our preeminent position only by our own mistakes and misconceptions. The “war on terror” has been a tragic misconception. Only by forging a new consensus on fighting the terrorists can we correct our mistakes and regain our preeminent position in the world.