George Soros likes to fight big battles. And now the 73-year-old multibillionaire is digging deep into his pockets to fight the biggest battle of his life: against President George Bush and the Republicans.
"So far I have committed $12.5m [£6.9m] for a rather interesting grassroots organisation called MoveOn.org," Soros told The Independent on Sunday over dinner in Switzerland last weekend, during the World Economic Forum in Davos. "I'm doing it because I feel that we now have to defend the principle of open society in America. Frankly, I find it both disturbing and surprising that this is the case."
Over the past decade or so, Soros has spent almost $5bn to strengthen democracies, mainly in the former Soviet Union and in Africa and Asia. At present his main targets are the heads of state in Zimbabwe, Libya, Burma, Turkmenistan - and the United States. His personal history has played an important part in his battle against Bush, which he describes as "a matter of life or death".
"I grew up as a Jew in Hungary and I was 14 years old when Nazi Germany occupied the country," he recalls. With the help of friends and a false identity, he was able to escape to London. "I would have been killed otherwise, and I learnt at an early age that a closed society can be hazardous to your health."
Soros is alarmed by what is happening in the world's most powerful country. "America under Bush is a danger to the world," he says. "There is a group of what I would call extremists, who have the following belief: that international relations are relations of power, not law."
This belief also extends to the economy, he continues: "The US is not the only country at the centre of the global capitalist system, but it is the most powerful, and it is the main driving force behind globalisation."
After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the fight against terrorism paralysed the global economy, leading to recessions around the world. But Soros insists: "The most powerful country on earth cannot afford to be consumed by fear."
Asked about comparisons between Bush and Hitler, he becomes upset: "I did not call Bush a Nazi and I would not call Bush a Nazi, exactly because I know the difference. The US is a democracy and an open society. But I do think there is a truth machine operating in America - a conservative truth machine [that is] misleading the public."
He goes on to give an example: "Compare the coverage of the Iraq war in America and in the rest of the world - even Sky News in England and Fox in the US. Both are owned by the same organisation, yet how different that coverage was."
The misleading American media coverage, he continues, is reflected in public opinion. "Sixty-eight per cent of the people believed Saddam was associated with al-Qa'ida and that he somehow was involved in 9/11. You really have to wonder how that is possible."
Used to fighting economic foes, Soros is now setting out a manifesto for taking on Bush. "The survival of an open society depends on the electorate," he says. "And when it is misinformed and misguided, an open society is in danger."
As always, Soros is willing to put his money where is mouth is. Now it seems that Bush's most-feared opponents are not the Democratic presidential candidates but a billionaire financier who backs anti-Bush advocacy groups with big bucks and has caused a firestorm of protest among right-wing Republicans. One said: "George Soros has purchased the Democratic Party."
Bush wants to raise at least $170m for his presidential campaign. But Soros and like-minded business people could be ready to spend up to $400m. Large amounts have already been raised for the Democrats via internet donations.
Soros, who usually works behind the scenes, is still surprised by the attention he gets in the media. "It would be too immodest for a private person to set himself up against the President," he says.
However, his guru status in the financial world has made people believe he can move markets single-handedly. Some politicians still fear him. In Britain, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont bears the scars of Soros's speculation against the pound in 1992, which forced sterling out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. In Asia, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad accused him of causing another financial crisis, in 1997, when he bet against the Thai baht. Even though Soros himself faced billion-dollar losses four years ago after investing in Nasdaq stocks and the Russian rouble, he continues to pursue his currency speculation. The rumours that his company Soros Fund Management, which has attracted $11.5bn of investors' money, is now betting heavily against the US dollar (rumours he refuses to comment on) are causing alarm among investors.
In China they call him "the crocodile", but for those investors who make profits out of his Quantum fund, he is the mastermind of Wall Street. Underprivileged groups all over the world whom he supports through his Open Society Institute see him as a generous philanthropist. And after he has dared to challenge their President, some Republicans are calling him a devil.
A fierce opponent of the death penalty and of corruption in the Third World, Soros obviously doesn't mind being the "enemy". Last week at the London School of Economics, he launched his latest book, The Bubble of American Supremacy. In it, he links American glo-bal supremacy to the boom-bust stock market cycle, and warns: "The bubble is now bursting. We can either deflate the bubble before it does any more damage or we can endorse the Bush doctrine and suffer the consequences."
He has likened the Bush administration's international policies to George Orwell's Animal Farm. In the classic book, the farm animals begin by proclaiming their equality but then the pigs take charge and change the rules to justify their brutal behaviour.
Soros has been similarly fearless in his criticism of international financial systems. In 1998 he published The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered, warning of imminent catastrophe. At the time, most of the financial community accused him of being a spoilsport whose intention was to prevent them from becoming as rich as himself. But Soros was right: the subsequent collapse of the internet bubble did indeed cause a global economic crisis. With that in mind, maybe his warnings about Bush will be taken more seriously.
'The Bubble of American Supremacy' is published this week by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £12.99.Reuse content