The world once looked to the United States as a beacon of good governance, George Soros believes. But in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the nation has lost its way, the international financier asserts in his latest book.
Soros, who will be in Louisville this month to discuss the book, "The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror," said the nation believes its own rhetoric and myth making in defiance of the facts and must undergo a change of heart. Renouncing "feel-good" misconceptions in the war on terror, he said, is a good place to start.
"On the other side, I try to outline what would be the proper role for America in the world," Soros said during a telephone interview from his New York office. "That is recognition that we have to be concerned with the common interests in humanity. … In other words, we have to lead the world in dealing with issues that require international cooperation."
In "The Age of Fallibility," he explores the role of thinking and reality -- having turned 76 on Aug. 12, he contemplates his mortality and the nature of death -- then delves into a largely familiar critique of the Bush administration's Iraq and anti-terror policies. Soros has admitted spending almost $16 million to stop President George Bush's re-election.
Soros will be the Kentucky Author Forum's guest Sept. 12 at the Kentucky Center. John Podesta, president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress, will interview him about the book, after which Soros will take questions from the audience.
Soros, who has written eight other books, said U.S. leadership in the years immediately after World War II is an example of what the country could achieve again. He noted that in that era the United States led the founding of the United Nations and the implementation of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-torn Europe.
President Harry Truman, Soros said, told the country what it needed to hear at that time, not what it wanted to hear.
Future presidents began doing the opposite, Soros said. After suggesting another Marshall Plan more than 40 years later to rebuild the former Soviet bloc, he recalled, "I was literally laughed at."
Soros acknowledged the 42 pages he devotes to thinking and reality may be tough sledding.
"I guess I'm much more into philosophy than the average reader," he joked.
"But the way we see the world has a tremendous impact on the world."
He said individuals and governments often make fatal mistakes because they become consumed with their own bias and rhetoric, even when facts contradict that version of reality.
"We are open to correct our errors, or we (insist) that our view is, in fact, the reality that we have to deal with," he said.
The "fallibility" in the book title refers to a leadership philosophy, which Soros advocates, that acknowledges the limits of its own wisdom and knowledge, and seeks constant improvement.
"Understanding is imperfect, and there is a reality beyond our will," he said. "The truth can be manipulated, but the extent to which the outcome will approximate our will depends on the extent to which our understanding approximates reality."
In terms of the war on terror, Soros said the Bush administration's rigid thinking produces such consequences as heavy casualties among civilians -- whose rage and resentment feed terrorism. Waging war against an abstraction prevents dealing with each threat on its merit, he said.
"We went wrong in our response to 9/11," Soros said. "(Franklin) Roosevelt would have said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead of that, our leaders exploited our … fears, and misled us."
Among his other topics, Soros touches on one close to Kentuckians: advocating clean-burning coal technology as an alternative to petroleum dependency.
Further advancements are needed to burn the mineral cleanly, but "coal is plentiful, you have plenty of it in Kentucky and elsewhere, and we need to find a way of using it without polluting," he said.
"A carbon tax combined with carbon credits would provide the economic incentives" on both the supply and demand side, he believes.
Born in 1930 in Budapest, Hungary, Soros survived both Nazi and Soviet occupations of that city before leaving in 1947 for England, where he graduated from the London School of Economics.
In 1956, Soros moved to the United States, where he began accumulating his fortune through a global investment fund he founded and managed. Today, he is chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC.
Though today he is a lightning rod for conservative critics because of his financial backing of liberal groups like MoveOn.org, Soros funded anti-Communist efforts during the 1980s, including Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia. Soros' foundations are active in more than 50 countries, dedicated, he said, to building and maintaining open societies.
Despite his vocal opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, Soros says it is wrong to describe him as anti-war, noting that he supported both the invasion of Afghanistan and the Clinton administration's intervention in the Balkans.
"We have to find a way out of Iraq, and we have to find a way that will do the least damage," he said.
Nor, he says, are his politics as far left as conservatives often characterize them; he describes himself as a centrist. "An open society … by its nature tends toward the center," he said.
One thing Soros has not been on political issues is silent. Why did he feel a duty to step forward? "I was not dependent on government or business contacts," he writes. "I could afford to take the heat."
Copyright © 2006 The Courier-Journal.