Conspiracy theory and American foreign policy examines the relationship between secrecy, power and interpretation around international political controversy, where foreign policy orthodoxy comes up hard against alternative interpretations. It does so in the context of American foreign policy during the War on Terror, a conflict that was quintessentially covert and conspiratorial. This book adds a new dimension to the debate by examining what I coin the ‘Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative’: the view that Arab-Muslim resentment towards America was motivated to some degree by a paranoid perception of American power in the Middle East. Immediately after 9/11, prominent commentators pointed to an Arab-Muslim culture of blame and a related tendency towards conspiracy theories about America’s regional influence as an important cultural driver of anti-Americanism. This narrative subsequently made its way into numerous US Government policy documents and initiatives advancing a War of Ideas strategy aimed at winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Arab-Muslims. The book provides a novel reading of the processes through which legitimacy and illegitimacy is produced in foreign policy discourses. It will also appeal to a wider cross-disciplinary audience interested in the burgeoning issues of conspiracy, paranoia, and popular knowledge, including their relationship to and consequences for contemporary politics.
The purpose of this chapter is to situate the Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative in relation to a common-sense understanding of conspiracy theory pervasive in American culture. A crucial starting point here is Richard Hofstadter’s paradigmatic account of ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, which locates conspiracy theories on the periphery of pluralistic American democracy as the irrational pathology of angry extremists, and contrasts it with a rational political centre where sensible politics occurs. I identify a powerful dynamic of ideological reproduction embedded in the Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative, which delegitimises Arab-Muslims and affirms a particular Western liberal identity. I show how the paranoid style framework is reinforced by an influential orientalist narrative prominently forwarded by Bernard Lewis and likeminded Arabist scholars, which situates Arab-Muslim culture as fundamentally anti-modernist and points to a culture of bitterness, self-denial and blame as an explanation for resentment towards the West.
This chapter engages with approaches that move away from the paranoid style paradigm, using these resources to rethink the issue of Arab-Muslim conspiracy theory. A central theme advanced in what I call the conspiracy culture literature is that conspiracy theories are more common than was previously thought because the underlying sociological and psychological dynamics that produce them are actually widespread. Many of the themes identified in this literature resonate across cultural horizons, highlighting important commonalities and potential points of connection with Arab-Muslim political culture. Yet extrapolating these theories remains a fraught enterprise. The problem is suggested by the reticence of postcolonial scholars about the usefulness of Eurocentric frameworks for radically dissimilar regions. Instead I develop a discursive understanding of conspiracy theory that emphasises the relationship between power and knowledge.
This chapter examines the widespread concern expressed by foreign policy commentators about the link between anti-Americanism and Arab-Muslim conspiracy theories in the wake of 9/11. It shows that this Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative helped disqualify criticism of American power and limit interpretations of 9/11. When ‘anti-Americanism’ was connected to ‘conspiracy theory’, readers were directed away from the substance of specific claims and towards the deeper pathologies of the people making them. In this sense, the Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative after 9/11 was involved in an ongoing process of boundary maintenance. One way to grasp this dynamic is to consider the concerns of foreign policy commentators after 9/11 as part of a wider conspiracy discourse, where multiple conspiracy narratives vied for standing and significance.
This chapter shifts the focus from foreign policy commentary to War on Terror doctrine. It does so by engaging with the Bush Administration’s War of Ideas strategy, which aimed to undermine the cultural drivers of terrorism by winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Arab-Muslims thought vulnerable to radicalisation. Tracing the Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative into this policy setting, it shows how the War of Ideas strategy tended to produce the conditions it sought to address. Delegitimizing dynamics embedded a strong countervailing force against successful engagement with Arab-Muslim people, who were framed here as inherently problematic. At the same time, the War of Ideas accentuated the contrast between America’s purported ideals and the often-ruthless pursuit of American interests. Under these circumstances, the War of Ideas had the potential to provoke suspicion of conspiracies, double-dealing and ulterior motives, as well as cynicism about American values.
This chapter examines the practical manifestation of the War of Ideas strategy in United States (US) State Department public diplomacy, as well as more recent counter-radicalisation efforts under the Obama Administration. It does so by focusing on several programs involved in direct engagements with anti-Americanism and extremist ideology: the Counter-Misinformation Team, tasked with debunking instances of misinformation and propaganda, and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), which engaged online with Muslim people thought vulnerable to radicalisation, as well as attempting to discredit jihadi recruiters. I show that the Arab-Muslim paranoia narrative flowed through into this public diplomacy effort and infused it with the same delegitimising dynamics identified in the War of Ideas doctrine, undermining the purported aim of engagement with Arab-Muslim people.