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An unlikely leader for the anti-Bush offensive

Financier George Soros told a group of liberal activists Thursday that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal hit Americans "in the same way" as Sept. 11 attacks. Soros is funding groups working to defeat President Bush.
Campaign for America's Future Holds Take Back America Conference
George Soros speaks at the Take Back America Conference on Thursday in Washington.Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty Images
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The most interesting figure on the Democratic Left in America right now is a most unlikely political activist: currency speculator-turned-anti-Bush donor George Soros.

Soros was the intriguing new star at this week’s “Take Back America” conference, a gathering of more than 2,000 operatives, Democratic candidates and supporters of liberal causes.

Given celebrity treatment with an introduction by Sen. Hillary Clinton, Soros offered his “Take Back America” audience a diffident, but ideologically hard-edged speech, telling them the election “is a referendum on the Bush administration’s policies, the Bush doctrine, and its first application, which was the invasion of Iraq.” He denounced the policy of pre-emptive attack as “quite an atrocious proposition.”

He sketched out his theory that political power follows boom-bust cycles just as financial markets do. And Bush, he said, is now in his bust phase.

“The picture of torture in Saddam’s prison was the moment of truth for us because this is not what this nation stands for,” he said. “Those pictures hit us the same way as the terrorist attack itself, not quite with the same force because (in) the terrorist attacks we were the victims. In the pictures we were the perpetrators.”

He charged that “the way President Bush conducted the war on terror converted us from victims into perpetrators.”

He also said, “What I find most galling is the pretense that is now presented that we went to war in Iraq for the sake of the Iraqi people.”

Condensed version of book
The speech was a condensed version of the anti-Bush book that Soros has just published, “The Bubble of American Supremacy.”

His speech included some rhetorical flourishes and some looseness with facts. For example, Soros said that “(Attorney General John) Ashcroft passed the Patriot Act.”

In reality, Congress passed the Patriot Act and Bush signed it into law. The vote in the Senate was 96-1, with Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry being one of the 96 “aye” votes. 

Soros also showed some ambivalence about Iraq policy.

He blamed Bush for involving the United States in Iraq, but said Bush will use clever sleight of hand to get American troops out prematurely.

“The Bush administration does have a plan to disengage from Iraq, it is being implemented, the objective is to reduce the number of body bags, and for that purpose the administration is willing to abandon all its other objectives,” he said.

The U.S. withdrawal, Soros predicted, will lead to the resurgence of militias and ultimately to civil war after the Iraqi elections.

In her glowing introduction to Soros on Thursday, Clinton said, “I believe in democracy, therefore I believe in speaking out and fighting back. And we cannot do that … if we don’t have people like George Soros willing to use his resources to help us organize.” 

The power Soros is now wielding in Democratic politics makes for an interesting counterpoint to his power eight years ago at the height of his fame as an investor.

Brilliant, ominous image
In those days, the Hungarian-born Soros had the image of a brilliant but faintly ominous wizard, the embodiment of the international financier who, with a single word or phrase, sent currency markets and stock markets on a spree or into a spin.

“SOROS' BULLISH COMMENTS SEND NIKKEI UP 1.3%” said one 1996 headline, while Reuters reported, “The shadow of billionaire American investor George Soros was glimpsed behind a continued attack on the Malaysian ringgit in favour of the Singapore dollar on Thursday, forex dealers said.”

“That’s how financial markets behave, you have booms and busts, and with this theory, I was rather good in exploiting that,” he told the crowd Thursday as he recounted his career. “When I made enough money, when my fund reached $100 million, I thought 'that’s enough money' and I reflected on what I wanted to use the money I was making for,” he said.

In 1979, he set up a foundation to promote democracy and openness in countries once ruled by authoritarian regimes.

“The collapse of a closed system doesn’t automatically lead to an open society, you need to give a helping hand,” Soros said Thursday. Currently in Iraq, Soros's Open Society Institute is running a project to track how oil revenues are used by the provisional government.

Top-tier donor
Now Soros has put his fortune to work in domestic political markets. If Kerry defeats Bush, Soros will be among the biggest single financiers of that victory.

As of the end of May, he had given more than $12 million to anti-Bush efforts, including America Coming Together, a group whose leadership includes Sierra Club chief Carl Pope and Ellen Malcolm, the founder of the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List.

With unlimited “soft money” contributions to political parties banned by the McCain-Feingold law, Soros and other donors are using what appears to be a loophole in the law to give money to America Coming Together and other groups organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code. The money going to the 527 groups offsets the Republicans’ advantage in raising “hard money,” the limited contributions that go to elect a specific candidate.