George Soros is many things to many people. To authoritarian regimes, he’s a nuisance who uses his billions, through his Open Society Institute, to fund causes and projects that help undermine their authority. To activists in societies emerging from dictatorship, he’s a Godsend who, when talking about democracy, puts his money where his mouth is by investing millions of dollars in popular initiatives.
To leaders like Muhammad Mahathir of Malaysia, money-market speculator Soros was at least partly responsible for the financial crisis of 1997, and what’s more, allegedly funded through the Southeast Asian Press Alliance the pro-democracy online news site Malaysiakini.
In Eastern Europe, Soros is regarded as a hero. He gave away nearly $5 billion to foster democracy in the former “socialist” states. In Russia, the Hungarian-born Soros also paid the stipends of tens of thousands of former Soviet scientists displaced by the collapse of the USSR. He has also fought AIDS, funded independent media groups, and commissioned the writing of new history books.
He is similarly a hero to the former black students in apartheid-ruled South Africa whose education at Capetown University he funded in 1979. Soros went into serious philanthropy that year, and since then has established a network of organizations–all dedicated to “promoting the values of democracy and the open society”–in more than 50 countries.
The Soros network spends nearly $500 million annually to promote these goals through a variety of projects that have included fostering the development of a free press, and working for children’s and women’s rights.
While to some Soros is the epitome of the businessman with a heart, and of capitalism with a conscience, the generous contributor to the US Democratic Party has been called a hypocrite for using “truth, justice and liberty” to create a situation in which money rules the US political system.
The Republicans, in one of their usual cheap shots, have described him as the Democratic Party’s “Daddy Warbucks”, although oil and banking interests are among the Republican Party’s biggest contributors. On that score the Republicans are no different from their Democratic counterparts. (“Daddy Warbucks” was the wealthy arms dealer foster-father of Little Orphan Annie of comics fame.)
Soros was born a Jew in Hungary in 1930, and lived through the Nazi occupation. In 1947 he left Hungary for England, where he studied at the London School of Economics. Settling in the United States, of which he became a citizen, Soros amassed one of the world’s biggest fortunes primarily through currency speculation. His fortune is estimated at between $7 to $ 10 billion.
Beyond his fame as a money market speculator and philanthropist, Soros has also authored eight books, the latest being The Bubble of American Supremacy: The Costs of Bush’s War in Iraq. Soros began to write that book when the US invaded Iraq last year. In it he argued that the Bush policy of pre-emptive war is premised on the myth that US military supremacy equals absolute power–as usual a Bush oversimplification of a complex issue, since US supremacy has also been based on alliances and economic partnership.
In Chapter 4 (“The Iraqi Quagmire”) of that book, Soros speculates that one of the motives of the Bush administration for attacking Iraq was precisely to assert US supremacy. Soros dismisses the Bush administration’s by now discredited “reasons”–Saddam Hussein’s possessing weapons of mass destruction and links with Al Qaeda–and suggests that the US attacked Iraq not only to demonstrate US power, but also because it was an easy target.
In addition, Soros argues, the US attacked Iraq for its oil and for its strategic location.
“Saudi Arabia has proven itself a treacherous ally: it had maintained political stability at home by supporting Islamic extremism abroad. In the aftermath of September 11, this balancing act was no longer possible and Saudi Arabia was in danger of becoming as unstable as the Shah’s Iran had been…
“By occupying Iraq and moving American military bases from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, the United States could establish a secure alternative to Saudi oil…
“The other important consideration was Israel,” continues Soros. “Establishing a strong military presence in Iraq would help to transform the political complexion of the entire region. This would reassure Israel and weaken the Palestinian extremists sufficiently to allow some progress toward a settlement on terms acceptable to Israel and its US supporters.”
Soros says he is opposed to the Bush administration for two reasons: first, he believes that far from making the US safe from terrorism, the doctrine of pre-emptive war, of which the attack on Iraq was a major expression, has exposed the US to continuing violence; and second, because, in the name of the war on terrorism, Bush has curtailed civil liberties and the other values and principles of open society in the United States itself.
Among the sorrows of Soros over the Bush administration is that “September 11 led to a suspension of the critical process so essential to a democracy–a full and fair discussion of the issues. President Bush silenced criticism by calling it unpatriotic. When he said that ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,’ I heard alarm bells ringing. I am afraid he is leading us in a very dangerous direction. We are losing the values that have made America great.”
Last week Soros once more put his money where his mouth is. He announced after a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC that he was going on a US speaking tour to address businessmen and “traditional conservatives” who have reservations about the Bush policies. For this tour, Soros said, he was committing $3 million, give or take a few dollars.
Soros delivered the speech “Why we must not re-elect President Bush” September 28, or two days before the John Kerry-George W. Bush debate on the 30th (October 1 in Manila). He announced afterwards both his speaking tour as well as the launch of a website (www.georgesoros.com) specifically meant to convince US voters not to vote for Bush on November 2.
The question now is what difference Soros’ vigorous campaign against Bush can make less than four weeks before Americans go to the polls. Many commentators have argued that Soros is not to be taken lightly. His donations to the Democrats re-energized them early this year, and he could yet convince those Republicans and businessmen who’re not entirely convinced that they should be supporting Bush to go for Kerry.
Bush’s unilateralist policies and imperial rhetoric have met resistance among “traditional conservatives” (the “traditional” adjective is meant to distinguish them from the neo-conservatives who pushed the US into invading Iraq despite the harm it could do to the US’ global alliances) and even big businessmen, among the latter being the Rockefellers. Their reservations are close to those of Soros’: they fear that Bush has not made the US any safer, and that he may have actually weakened the US capacity to respond to threats to it by bogging down the US military in another Vietnam-type war it can’t win.
While Soros could rally these doubters to his side, however, it’s also possible that he could alienate the vast majority of US voters. That could erase John Kerry’s recent gains over Bush in the opinion polls in the aftermath of the September 30 debate.
The Bush camp has made much of Kerry’s elite background, including his marriage to his Portuguese, African born-wife Teresa, who inherited the vast Heinz ketchup fortune from her first husband.
This has struck a resonant chord among many US voters–who have either forgotten, or ignored the fact, that Bush is himself the privileged multimillionaire scion of a wealthy Texas oil family whose candidacy is being supported by banking and oil interests and which has extensive links to the Saudi royal family.
Soros’ campaign could backfire on Kerry by convincing those voters that Kerry is indeed being supported by the wealthy, in contrast to Bush who–thanks to a deceitful and misleading Republican campaign strategy– is mistakenly regarded in terms of social and economic status as a man of the people.
If that happens, and Bush still wins this November, it will only establish the truth of the emerging suspicion that– far from being the demonstration of informed decision- making that democracy is all about– the US elections are actually exercises in who’s better in manipulating a largely uninformed electorate. That sounds distressingly familiar to Filipinos who’ve just gone through elections in which basically the same thing happened.