LOS ANGELES — What do Irish rock group U-2’s lead singer Bono and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill have in common with currency-exploiter and philanthropist George Soros? A major obsession: that, in the long run, poverty, deteriorating global public health and declining economic development can prove even more destructive enemies to civilized life than are terrorists.

The U.S. media has been portraying the leather-jacketed rocker and the pinstriped Treasury official — on a self-designed tour of African poverty spots — as an “odd couple.” But if it takes a village to raise a child, it may take this sort of odd couple to raise our consciousness about the have-nots having even less these days, at a time when the haves appear to have more and more.

That’s the blunt theme of Soros’ new book “On Globalization.” It’s an impassioned plea for attention to be paid to the losers of globalization. The ideology of the free market, with all its superficial success stories, has become so dominant that it all but obviates any other well-thought-out alternative view about what is best for planet Earth. The Soros critique of the unfettered free-market capitalist system — which advocates major reforms in capital distribution, for starters — comes at a time when the world is troubled about how to cope with terrorism.

And therein lies the tale: From his perspective, the bombs-away attack on terrorism can’t possibly be the solution.

To be sure, after the terrorist massacres of Sept. 11, it’s extremely difficult to argue against a policy of military preparedness and law-enforcement investment. It’s impossible not to admire both the competency of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and the impressive record of diplomatic and security cooperation in Asia. Consider the way much of the region has been lining up for the fight.

Just last week, the Japanese government renewed its commitment to the antiterrorist campaign, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, agreed to new commitments against terrorism to aid the international effort (it’s rare day indeed when the 10 ASEAN nations agree on anything!).

And look at Singapore and neighboring Malaysia for their strong law-enforcement actions against terrorism: Both have captured and jailed scores of terrorist suspects under their tough national-security laws. Singapore was particularly adroit at setting a trap for a terrorist ring that had planned to kill Americans in the country. But one fears that the success of such repressive efforts could inadvertently mask the seeds of a deeper failure — the globe’s more fundamental and corrosive maldistributions, from income to health care.

This, in fact, is precisely the worry of Kishore Mahbubani, U.N. ambassador for Singapore, a country second to none in its tough antiterrorism stand. “While we are focusing on the battle against international terrorism,” he told me recently, “it’s very important to address the long-term issues. Everyone acknowledges that to fight terrorism you have to fight global poverty. The more stable and secure the multinational system is, the better off we are.”

It is the insecurity of our system that worries knowing insiders such as Soros, who over his career has cashed in handsomely on its currency and equity vulnerabilities with jackal-like jabs of speculation. He understands precisely that this system is so fundamentally tilted toward the already rich and powerful that poor and developing nations don’t face a level playing field in their struggle to achieve economic traction.

The world’s establishment leaders, he suggests, inadvertently become terrorists’ greatest allies by adamantly insisting that the overall social good can be ensured by the simple expedient of people pursuing their own comfort and greed at will — and to the max. That myopic vision is nothing but a formula for a continuing clash of economic civilizations.

And it’s a deception to believe that military superiority alone will be able to insulate anyone from the vicious fruits emanating from the world of the have-nots. At a time when globalization is synonymous with a shrinking world, we are all, more and more, living in the same (or immediately adjacent) neighborhood.

Thankfully, that odd couple in Africa, and the odd-man-out in his dramatic new book, are dramatizing this daunting issue powerfully; they deserve tremendous credit.

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