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Reading Room: Conspiracy Theory and American Foreign Policy

19 Nov 2017
Reviewed by Tim Smith

Labelling particular ideas as conspiracy theories delegitimises the real complaints of many in the Muslim world about US foreign policy and makes it impossible to address them, writes Tim Aistrope in an important analysis.

The label ‘conspiracy theory’ has long served to delegitimise particular ideas. By pushing these ideas to the fringes, they are effectively removed from serious consideration in the public discourse. To be labelled a conspiracy theorist is to be pushed to the fringes of politics, even if your argument is valid.

Such was the case, Tim Aistrope argues, with the criticisms of American foreign policy presented by Arab Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Seeking an explanation for terrorist attacks on the US—as well as a narrative that helped to dismiss genuine criticism of the American response— political leaders, policy makers and the media branded a broad group of people as paranoid and delusional. The conspiracy theory narrative emerged quickly as a leading explanation for Arabs’ antipathy, subsuming competing ideas, and then went on to help dictate actual policy in the so-called War on Terror.

This rhetorical weapon is an easy way to dismiss criticism without critically engaging with it, but also makes it impossible to resolve these criticisms, to win hearts and minds. By contrasting the enlightened and rational West with the irrationally angry Middle East, the US Government was able to convince the public of the need for military action in the name of combatting terrorism. However, this led to a failure to understand the real complaints that many in the Muslim world had about US foreign policy, and thus failed to adequately address them.

Aistrope draws on a fundamentally Foucauldian understanding of political discourse: of the knowledge-power nexus and the ways that identity, and even reality, can be shaped by setting the parameters of acceptable conversation by actors. The interplay of secrecy, power and interpretation provides a new insight into understanding the causes and outcomes of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as their long-lasting ramifications for the region today.

Analysing the last two decades of US foreign policy as well as prominent foreign policy media publications, Aistrope thoroughly investigates the role of conspiracy theory throughout the War on Terror. With the rise of fake news and alternative facts this sort of analysis is more important than ever.

Tim Aistrope, Conspiracy Theory and American Foreign Policy, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2016, ISBN: 9780719099199

Tim Smith is a former researcher at the Australian Institute of International Affairs National Office.