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A psychology of fear

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Towers in New York, prompting President George Bush to launch his war on terrorism. American forces might not have found any trace of a nuclear arsenal in Iraq, but the effort has not been without success. Most notably, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was exporting terror to the rest of the world, has been smashed, though there are reports of its cadre regrouping in some parts of the country. One could also argue that this has brought like-minded countries together on how to combat terrorism.
Then there is the other side of the story. Philanthropist billionaire George Soros argues""with impeccable logic""that Bush's war has created more problems than it has solved. As a result, the US as well as the rest of the world has become a more unsafe place to live in. There are more people willing to attack the US and its allies now than in 2001.
After 9/11, Soros had been vocal in denouncing the war on terrorism. He had even mounted a campaign to keep Bush from being re-elected for a second term in office. But Bush was returned to the White House with a thumping majority. This set Soros thinking: When the dire consequences of the war were so evident, why did the American people vote for him in such large numbers?
Soros says that since the day Ronald Reagan became President, the US has gradually morphed into a feel-good society, where people live in perennial fear of death. This was one weakness Osama bin Laden and his ilk were quick to spot and then exploit to their advantage. By striking at the twin towers, they touched the most excitable nerve of the American population. And when people live in fear, they somehow seem to abandon all reason and logic, Soros argues.
The invasion of Iraq, says Soros, has been the US' single-largest foreign policy blunder in modern times. Though Saddam Hussain's despotic regime has come to an end and Hussain is dead, it has certainly not put an end to the ethnic strife in the country. On the contrary, according to Soros, a civil war in Iraq was always on the cards.
Moreover, the invasion of Iraq has destabilised the entire region. Iran, for instance, has seen a resurgence of popular hardliner sentiment after US forces moved into Iraq and Afghanistan. Its nuclear programme too has immense public support. And it is not just Iran. Hardliners have gained power in several Islamic nations after Bush unleashed his war on terror.
And as militant Islam consolidates its power, moderate pro-West Arab regimes find themselves beleaguered. Soros argues that they find themselves squashed between the pressure to democratise and the rising hardliner elements in their population. The US suspicion after the war on terror would eventually make them play into the hands of the extremists. The negatives of the war far outweigh the positives.
In the final analysis, Soros says that the war on terror is nothing but a false metaphor. Terror, says Soros, is an abstraction. And you cannot fight an abstraction. A campaign like this is bound to result in the death of innocents. And every death only goes to add to the rank and file of the unknown, faceless enemy.
With his war on terror, Bush has stoked the fires of nationalism and other countries seem to be following him. With Japanese nationalism on the rise, China has come up with the idea of Asean+3 (China, Taiwan and South Korea). Scared of being dominated by the Chinese, Asean, on its part, has floated the concept of Asean+5 (India and Australia).
In some cases, the results have been far more serious. After the US blocked a Chinese company from acquiring Unocal, China started looking for oil in countries like Myanmar. This has only resulted in granting legitimacy to the military regime in that country.
On the economic front too, rough weather awaits the US, Soros argues. The feel-good mindset kicked off an unprecedented boom in consumerism in the country. Combined with what Soros calls Asian mercantilism, this has caused the US' trade deficit to rise to over 6 per cent of gross domestic product. Credit is stretched to the limit and the real estate sector is all set for a huge correction. Soros' advice to the US: You can't be a feel-good society forever; sooner than later, you need to confront the realities.
You might not agree with what he writes, but you cannot ignore Soros. He definitely makes you sit up and think.
The Age of Fallibility
The Consequences of the War on Terror
George Soros
Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £8.50; 259 pages

First Published: Fri, January 26 2007. 00:00 IST