Looking down the list of speakers scheduled to address the Campaign for America's Future's well-attended and well-spoken "Take Back America" conference this week, it was easy to surmise that the most newsworthy remarks would be those of US Sen. Hillary Clinton, US Sen. John Edwards, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the Rev. Jesse Jackson or, perhaps, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who was honored for his crusading against Wall Street's excesses and abuses.
Edwards skipped the event, costing himself an opportunity to appear before one of the most energized and engaged progressive audiences that will gather this year--and begging questions about whether he really is ready for the primetime of a vice-presidential nomination. Dean, on the other hand, was front and center, noting the resignation of CIA director Gene Tenet with the fiery declaration that, "It's about time somebody in this Administration resigned over all the misdeeds that have gone on..." Other speakers were equally fierce in their denunciations of the Bush White House, especially NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who told the crowd, "We have a President who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged. We were promised compassionate conservatism; instead we got crony capitalism."
But the most memorable address was a thoughtful and provocative commentary on foreign affairs by an unlikely populist: billionaire George Soros. Identifying himself as someone who had "never been very active in electoral politics," Soros told the crowd of more than 2,000 progressive activists who had come to Washington from across the country that he felt compelled to involve himself deeply in the 2004 presidential election fight because "I don't think this is a normal election."
"This is a referendum on the Bush Administration's policies, the Bush doctrine and its application--its first application, which was the invasion of Iraq," Soros explained. To the cheers of the crowd, the man who has donated an estimated $15.5 million to groups such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org that are seeking to oust the Republican President described the Bush doctrine as "an atrocious proposition."
"It's built on two pillars," he said. "One, that the United States must maintain its absolute military superiority in every part of the world; and second, that the United States has the right for preemptive action."
Designed to allow the United States to operate on the world stage without international constraints, Soros said, the Bush doctrine has created a circumstance straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm, where "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." In such a circumstance, the Hungarian-born financier said, the rest of the world looks at the United States with a mixture of concern, fear and anger.
That, he explained, is why the 2004 presidential election matters so very much.
"If we endorse the [Bush] doctrine, then we have to take the consequences: the mistrust and rage that is directed at the US today," Soros said. "If we reject it, then the blame belongs where it really should be: namely, in the policies of the Bush Administration. And we have to show that America doesn't stand for those policies."
Soros spoke eloquently to a reality that has yet to be fully impressed on the American people by John Kerry or the Democratic Party. The rest of the world is watching this year's presidential election closely. There is broad acceptence in other countries that Bush assumed the presidency under dubious premises--or, more precisely, as Soros put it, that "he was elected by one vote in the Supreme Court" rather than by a popular mandate. Thus, the 2004 election offers the American people a chance to signal to the rest of the planet that they do not share their President's worldview.
That worldview is shaped by Vice President Dick Cheney, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and a small circle of men and women who, Soros noted, are "usually described as neoconservatives." He suggested another name: "American supremacists"--who believe that "the United States is the most powerful and therefore it must use that power to impose itself on the world."
That imposition, Soros argued in the most controversial and compelling section of his address, has come at great cost to other countries and other peoples. But it may be costing the United States and the American people even more.
"I think that the picture of torture in...Abu Ghraib, in Saddam's prison, was the moment of truth for us, because this is not what this nation stands for," Soros said, to loud applause from the crowd. "I think that those pictures hit us the same way as the [September 11, 2001] terrorist attack itself--not quite with the same force because [in] the terrorist attack, we were the victims. In the pictures, we were the perpetrators; the others were the victims. But there is, I'm afraid, a direct connection between those two events, because the way that we, President Bush, conducted the war on terror, converted us from victims into perpetrators. This is a very tough thing to say, but the fact is that the war on terror as conducted by this Administration has claimed more innocent victims than the original attack itself."
Those words, fact-based as they may be, brought harsh condemnations from the usual crowd of Bush-can-do-no-wrongers. Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, who has made no secret of his determination to slander any critic of the President as hater of America, was the first out of the gate.
"For Democrats to say that the abuse of Iraqi fighters is the moral equivalent of the slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans is outrageous," grumbled Gillespie. "Their hatred of the President is fueling a blame America first mentality that is troubling."
Gillespie was, of course, wrong. Soros went out of his way to note the differences between American values and ideals and the Bush doctrine. But, of course, such subtleties are lost on political cheapshot artists.
In fact, Soros's speech was a deeply patriotic statement, grounded in the high regard of an immigrant for his adopted land. As a man of the world, Soros spoke with sorrow about "the damage that [the Bush doctrine and its application in Iraq] has done to our standing in the world."
"We need an alternative vision," he exclaimed. "We need an alternate vision to reestablish our position in the world."
Speaking of his faith that the American people will reject Bush, and his doctrine, this November, Soros said, "We mustn't turn away from the world because we are increasingly dependent and what happens, what kind of regime prevails in Afghanistan or Iraq, does have a great bearing on our security and on our properity, so we must develop ways of intervening when there is an oppressive regime or a rogue state. But...we cannot do it alone. We must do it in cooperation with others."