Philanthropist urges political change

John Colson
George Soros speaks Thursday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Institute's free McCloskey Speaker Series. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros swore in 2003 that the removal of President George Bush from office was the “central focus of my life” and “a matter of life and death,” according to The Washington Post.He still feels that way about the current president and the grip that Republicans have on the body politic of the country, although he’s not a whole lot happier about the way Democrats have been doing things lately. Soros, 75, was in Aspen on Thursday to speak at the Aspen Institute as part of its free McCloskey Speaker Series, and he did not disappoint a standing-room-only crowd of admirers.So many came to see him, in fact, that the Institute set up a remote video feed to pipe images from Paepcke Auditorium into a nearby facility. He was here to speak about his latest book, “The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror.”With a net worth estimated at more than $7 billion, the native of Hungary has become an economic and political force around the world since moving to the U.S. in 1959 and beginning to amass his fortune as a stock trader. Currently single, he has been married twice and has five children.Soros’ partner on the stage at Paepcke Auditorium, Brookings Institution President Talbott, credited Soros with doing more to help former Soviet satellite republics emerge from the USSR’s dominion than the U.S. government.Always interested in philosophy, he devoted the first section of his book to his personal belief that humankind’s ability to perceive reality is hampered by its own interference in world affairs, which he believes leads to copious misconceptions about everything from our role in ecology to the validity of the Bush administration’s justifications for invading Iraq and waging the “war on terrorism.”

“We’re waging war on an abstraction,” Soros told his audience, arguing that the Bush policies wrongly build on national fears, which creates more fear.He termed the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks “the right response” and “a brilliant military success.” But the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan and out of Iraq, which he termed “a dismal failure” as a national policy act.”We could have done a very good job in Afghanistan, because we were in fact welcomed as liberators,” he said, explaining that had the U.S. showed its commitment to rebuilding a Muslim nation it could have “put al-Qaida to rest.”Soros said he feels that the Bush administration has changed somewhat in its second term. He said he felt the White House has backed away from a firm belief that the U.S. has “the right to impose our will on the world … by military means” and is leaning more toward diplomacy in an effort to gain international support for U.S. positions.Still, when asked why he wrote his latest book, he answered with a smile, “Because President Bush was re-elected. So I had to ask, what is wrong with us?”The book explores, among other questions, why it is that so many U.S. voters seemed to oppose or at least question Bush policies in 2004, but he won anyway. Soros said he believes there is reason to suspect voter fraud in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, but that a large enough majority vote could overcome such fraud.

For the elections later this year and in 2008, he said, there is a need for “a more profound rethinking of our position in the world” by the electorate.But, he said, “I’m frankly very concerned that it isn’t happening.”After chatting with Talbott for more than half an hour, Soros fielded 20 minutes worth of questions touching on everything from his position regarding the future of Russia and the former Soviet republics, to his opinions about how voters can overcome corporate interest in keeping war going in the Middle East, to his belief that no nation can force democracy on another, as Bush claims to want to do in Iraq.”You can’t impose democracy from the outside,” he said. It is possible to support “those who are working toward it” and thus encourage the internal creation of democratic institutions, but democracy must come from within a nation’s own population.In a short interview after the talk, Soros said he has been speaking in many countries around the world since his book came out and was translated into several languages, and that he gets many of the same questions wherever he goes.In Europe, he said, the questioning sometimes turns anti-American in tone, but not always, “because they know my views” based on a belief that only the U.S. can lead the world out of the troubles it now faces, once it cleans up its own political house.

In his book he declares that he is impatient with what he calls “talk-fests,” such as the three-day Brookings Institution seminar this week at the Aspen Institute.But the seminar has been worthwhile, he said, because “we’re making an attempt to translate it into something positive.”In his book and the talk, he named nuclear weapons, the energy crisis and global warming as the chief concerns facing the world today, and when pressed he said global warming is the most important among the three.”Nuclear war is a serious threat, but not a foregone conclusion,” he said. “Climate change needs attention right now, or it could destroy our civilization.”Grassroots Television Channel 12 and by the KAJX radio station taped Soros’ talk.John Colson’s e-mail address is