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The Moving Target

far-from-equilibrium territory. I see a certain parallel between the pursuit of American supremacy and the boom-bust pattern that can be observed from time to time in the stock market. That bubble is now bursting.

In The Age of Fallibility, Soros goes further: “In the years since 9/11, America’s power and influence in the world have declined more than at any other time in its history.” The proximate cause of this change is the invasion of Iraq, which Soros describes as “an ill-conceived and ill-executed adventure that would undermine the American supremacy that it was meant to underpin.” The goal of the Bush administration may have been to secure American primacy in a stable world order, but the upshot has been to create a situation in which “the main obstacle to a stable and just world is the United States.”

In The Bubble of American Supremacy Soros argued that the Bush administration adhered to a far-reaching ideology. Market fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, and the neoconservative doctrine of American supremacy came together to support a foreign policy that emphasized rivalry between states rather than the possibilities of international cooperation. In The Age of Fallibility, Soros modifies this view: “The current regime has the support of disparate groups unified only by the desire for political power and influence.” Soros is right to accept that his original analysis was faulty. For much of the time since Iraq was invaded, the administration has been floundering, unable to mount a coherent response to the calamitous developments it has set in motion. It would be fanciful to suppose that it has been implementing any rationally defensible theory or strategy.

But that does not mean it lacks a definite view of the world. Though Soros notes “the rise of religious fundamentalism which until recently stayed at the fringes of politics,” he says little in The Age of Fallibility about the role of religion in the Bush administration. Yet it is here more than anywhere else that it has departed from its predecessors. Some of the most dangerous features of its approach to foreign policy betray the influence of beliefs deriving from Christian fundamentalism. Consider strategies for dealing with terrorism. Soros acknowledges fully that terrorist threats exist; but he suggests that the “war on terror” embodies a mistaken metaphor. Successful counterterrorist strategies have focused chiefly on security measures and political initiatives rather than conventional military operations. These strategies may include concentrated military action—as when Taliban bases were destroyed by America and its allies in Afghanistan—but campaigns of the kind that the US is fighting in Iraq tend to alienate the general population and boost terrorist recruitment. These facts are well understood by military and intelligence analysts in the United States and throughout the world. If the administration persists in its counterproductive policies the reason cannot be that it is unaware of their effects. No doubt intellectual inertia plays a part, but the administration’s view of the world has a delusional quality that goes beyond such errors of judgment.

The “war on terror” is not just a mistaken metaphor. It embodies a tendency to think of international conflict in theological terms that has long been present on the American right, which the increased power of evangelical Christianity has reinforced. A Homeland Security Planning Scenario document published in July 2004 describes the terrorist threat facing the United States as being perpetrated by the Universal Adversary—a description that is echoed in Bush’s many references to a “war against evil.”6 Conservative evangelicals count heavily both in funding the Republican Party and as voters. There is not much doubt that they form the principal intended audience of Bush’s apocalyptic rhetoric.7 The Christian right’s role in the Bush administration is not simply that of an ally that must be courted and appeased, however. There is a clear affinity in worldview. Millennialist beliefs shape the administration’s thinking, in secular as well as overtly religious forms.

In his seminal study of late medieval millenarian movements,8 Norman Cohn argued that the beliefs that animated these movements did not die out in modern times. They were reproduced in twentieth-century totalitarian ideologies. In different ways, Nazism and communism claimed to be based on science but were actually vehicles for apocalyptic myths. Each believed a major rupture in history was imminent that would usher in a new world. Cohn’s analysis of the political role of millenarian beliefs may be relevant today. Though they may present their news as based on social-scientific theories of modernization, neoconservatives who believe that humankind is on the brink of an American-led “global democratic revolution” in which tyranny will be overthrown forever are voicing a chiliastic faith. They are engaging in prophecy, no less clearly than their allies among Christian evangelicals when they speak of Armageddon and the End Time. The belief that a catastrophic conflagration in the Middle East would inaugurate a new world order to which some on the Christian right subscribe is not an empirical hypothesis that can be revised on the basis of experience. For those who accept it, it is a revealed truth. Equally, no reverse will alter the belief of neoconservatives that the world is destined to adopt an American version of democracy. Inasmuch as it is shaped by such millenarian beliefs the Bush administration’s foreign policy is a faith-based mission rather than a rational engagement with the world.

Soros tries to account for the disastrous foreign policy record of the Bush administration since September 11 as the result of a series of errors, but he is plainly dissatisfied with this explanation. “Who would have thought,” he asks, that “the oldest, most well-established, and most powerful open society in the world could pose a threat not only to the concept of open society at home but also to peace and stability in the world? Yet that is what has happened in the aftermath of the terrorist attack of 9/11.”

No doubt part of the answer is in the trauma induced by the terrorist attacks, which the administration exploited to stifle criticism of its policies. Yet this can hardly be the whole story. Soros tells us that he “watched events unfold after 9/11 with a bias rooted in my adolescent experience of Nazism and communism. My conceptual framework was also based on that experience.” He is far from claiming that the United States is becoming a totalitarian regime—it remains “a functioning democracy with an independent judiciary and the rule of law.” He suggests that there are some “similarities in propaganda methods” between totalitarian propaganda and opinion management by the Bush administration, and refers to the work of George Lakoff, whose work in cognitive science has enabled the manipulation of public opinion to be better understood.9 But he remains bemused by the success with which the administration has been able to impose its interpretation of reality: “How is that possible? It is almost as if people were clamoring to be deceived.”

The missing element here is the pivotal political role of millennialist religion. The attacks activated apocalyptic beliefs widely current in sections of the American population, which the Bush administration has been able to mobilize in support of its agenda. This was not simply cynical manipulation, for there seems little doubt that Bush shares these beliefs. Millenarian belief systems of the kind found on the Christian right are not explanatory theories that can be overturned by contrary evidence. They are myths, which serve a need for meaning rather than truth. The worldview of the Christian right embodies a view of history that is framed in eschatological concepts, according to which American power can be used to rid the world of evil. In theological terms the belief that human action can eradicate evil is decidedly heterodox. Judged by empirical standards it can only be termed irrational.

During much of the last century it seemed that the capture of power by irrational systems of belief could occur only in dictatorial regimes. Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union were closed societies whose ruling ideologies could not be exposed to critical scrutiny. Given the success of liberal democracy in defeating its rivals and spreading throughout much of the world it was easy to assume that it has a built-in rationality that gives it an advantage over any kind of authoritarianism. Open societies were liberal democracies, almost by definition, and it seemed they would come into being wherever dictatorship had been overthrown.

Soros is clear that this was much too simple a view:

The collapse of a closed society does not automatically lead to an open society; it may lead to continuing collapse and disintegration that is followed by some kind of restoration or stabilization. Thus a simple dichotomy between open and closed society is inadequate…. Open society [is] threatened from both directions: too much liberty, anarchy, and failed states on the one hand; dogmatic ideologies and authoritarian or totalitarian regimes of all kinds on the other.

In fact, Popper’s taxonomy may need a more fundamental revision than Soros has yet realized. When closed societies collapse but fail to make the transition to openness the reason need not be that they languish in anarchy or suffer a return to dictatorship. It may be that they adopt an illiberal form of democracy. Along with the liberal democratic tradition that goes back to Locke and the English civil war there is a tradition, originating in the French Revolution and formulated theoretically by Rousseau, which understands democracy as the expression of popular will. The elective theocracy that is emerging in much of post-Saddam Iraq is a democratic polity in the latter sense, as is the current regime in Iran; so is the Hamas government in Palestine.

To be sure, these regimes often lack freedom of information and expression and legal limitations on government power, which are essential features of democracy in the liberal tradition. In these respects they are closed societies; but they are not dictatorships. It is often forgotten that democracy, defined chiefly by elections and the exercise of power in the name of the majority, can be as repressive of individual freedom and minority rights as dictatorship—sometimes more so.

To the extent that they repress intellectual freedom, authoritarian regimes necessarily depart from any ideal of the open society; but they may on occasion apply reason in the formulation of their policies more consistently and successfully than the most well established liberal democracy. This is illustrated in the ongoing expansion of Russian power. With characteristic candor Soros declares himself “astounded” by the reemergence of Russia as a key player in the international system.

In part this is a side effect of the global energy crisis, which he examines in an incisive chapter. Russia is able to assert itself in international affairs and disregard Western disapproval of its regressive internal policies because it commands vast reserves of natural resources—above all, oil and natural gas—that are urgently needed during the present period of accelerating globalization. Russia’s revival as a major power is also, however, a product of the policies the Putin regime has pursued. Using European and international dependency on Russian energy supplies as a lever, Putin has skillfully advanced Russia’s geopolitical interests. He has made mistakes—such as his heavy-handed intervention in Ukraine—but they have arisen from miscalculations rather than irrationality. Except with respect to the intractable problem of Chechnya, Russian policies have been highly effective in achieving their goals. Chinese foreign policy has followed a similarly pragmatic pattern, and if anything has been even more successful. While Russia and China are advancing, America has suffered an unprecedented loss of power and influence. No doubt the Bush administration has committed many avoidable mistakes; but its central folly has been to implement a faith-based foreign policy in which the identification and correction of errors play hardly any part.

Indeed, rather than recognizing and rectifying its errors the administration tends to compound them. It seems likely that some neoconservatives in the administration would welcome an escalation of the current conflict in the Middle East to the point where US military action against Iran could appear justified. In part their concern is caused by the rise of Iran as the predominant power in the Gulf—a development furthered by the war in Iraq, which by destroying Saddam’s secular despotism removed the chief counterweight to Iran’s regional power and created the conditions for the emergence of an Islamist regime that is bound to be increasingly subject to the influence of Tehran.

American air strikes on Iran would reinforce the negative consequences of the war. They would have a highly destabilizing effect on global oil supplies, damaging the US and benefiting Russia. They would also increase the influence in the Gulf and throughout the Islamic world of the apocalyptic Shia tradition expressed by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and embroil the US in an expanded and intensified regional conflict. The overall result would be to accelerate the decline of American hegemony that began with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Less than twenty years after the Communist collapse, the rising powers in the international system are authoritarian regimes that will not tolerate open political opposition. Closed or semi-closed societies are proving more capable of framing and executing rational strategies than the world’s premier open society, whose faith-based foreign policies have been consistently counterproductive. The “new American century” could last less than a decade.

Soros’s early experiences left him with a need to understand human behavior in extreme circumstances, which led to his lifelong engagement with the ideas of Popper. Popper never doubted that the ills of society could be remedied by the use of reason, and despite his criticisms of Popper’s philosophy Soros would like to agree. It is a belief—or hope—that has inspired him to promote intellectual and political pluralism throughout the world and it informs his admirable stand in opposing the follies of the Bush administration. Yet the searching self-criticism he undertakes in this book points in a different direction. If there cannot be a science of society, neither can society be expected to repeat the cumulative advance that has been achieved in science. The extreme situations that Soros experienced as a youth, and which in a different form he sees today, are not solely a result of fallibility—even of the radical kind he discusses in his account of reflexivity. They have a deeper source in irrational beliefs, which remain potent forces in politics. Over the long sweep of history, far-from-equilibrium situations are normal. Open societies can never be safe from the disorders of faith.

  1. 6

    The document can be viewed at www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/report/2004/hsc-planning-scenarios-jul04_intro.htm.

  2. 7

    For the role of evangelical Christianity in Bush’s rise to the presidency, see Kevin P. Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religions, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the Twenty-first Century(Viking, 2006); and Michael Lind, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (Basic Books, 2003).

  3. 8

    Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, revised and expanded edition (Oxford University Press, 1970). Cohn has also analyzed the role of apocalyptic myths in fueling anti-Semitism. See his Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Serif, 1996).

  4. 9

    See Lakoff’s recent book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

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