Once Upon a Time, Hollywood Helped U.S. Image Abroad

Conn Carroll /

On his recent trip to Eastern Europe (including Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania), Heritage foreign policy analyst Jim Phillips was struck by both the prevalence and the ultimate source of conspiracy theories about the United States. In an upcoming memo, he writes:

In particular, young people cited the influence of American movies, which have boosted the popularity of many conspiracy theories. They repeatedly referred to Fahrenheit 9/11, the slanted diatribe created by leftist provocateur Michael Moore. They had difficulty sorting fact from fiction in Moore’s “mockumentary,” a film that mimicked a documentary to disseminate its propagandistic views. The students also referred to Zeitgeist, a more recent documentary-style rehash of conspiracy theories concerning the Catholic Church, the 9/11 attacks and U.S. economic policy.

Much of the anti-American disinformation that is eagerly consumed overseas comes not from governments but from Hollywood. A frequent theme in American-made movies is the threat posed by rogue agencies within the U.S. government or by predatory American corporations that seek world domination. In Hollywood’s jaundiced view, the root cause of terrorism and of many of the Middle East’s chronic problems can be traced back to U.S. foreign policy.

Read his full report below:

I returned from a trip to Eastern Europe last month, where I was surprised by the persistent popularity of conspiracy theories concerning the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. foreign policy and the war in Iraq. After speaking about U.S. Middle East policy before public audiences in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania, I was frequently asked about the Bush Administration’s motivation for the war in Iraq, suspicions that the driving factor in U.S. foreign policy was the ambition to establish control of oil, and even far-fetched theories that the U.S. government had secretly engineered the 9/11 terrorist attacks to justify a lunge for oil in Iraq.

It is not surprising that conspiracy theories would gain traction in troubled times. Chronic Middle East crises, spectacular terrorist attacks, distant wars, and spiraling energy prices provide considerable grist for the mills of conspiracy theorists. In times of uncertainty such conspiracy theories offer the comfort of a simple explanation for complex events.

Moreover, conspiracy theories are particularly popular and prevalent in countries that have emerged from totalitarian rule, where government policy was by definition a conspiracy and government secrecy encouraged conspiracy theories to flourish. Totalitarian ideologies often are based on conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories also may be spread by governments or groups that have an interest in molding public opinion regarding an issue. For example, some officials in Estonia and Latvia, which have relatively large Russian minorities, suspect that Russian media may be helping to spread such anti-American conspiracy theories.

But many students that I talked to appeared to be more influenced by Western and American media. In particular, young people cited the influence of American movies, which have boosted the popularity of many conspiracy theories. They repeatedly referred to Fahrenheit 9/11, the slanted diatribe created by leftist provocateur Michael Moore. They had difficulty sorting fact from fiction in Moore’s “mockumentary,” a film that mimicked a documentary to disseminate its propagandistic views. The students also referred to Zeitgeist, a more recent documentary-style rehash of conspiracy theories concerning the Catholic Church, the 9/11 attacks and U.S. economic policy.

Much of the anti-American disinformation that is eagerly consumed overseas comes not from governments but from Hollywood. A frequent theme in American-made movies is the threat posed by rogue agencies within the U.S. government or by predatory American corporations that seek world domination. In Hollywood’s jaundiced view, the root cause of terrorism and of many of the Middle East’s chronic problems can be traced back to U.S. foreign policy.

For example, the film Syriana presents an elaborate conspiracy theory in which the CIA and American oil companies are the driving forces behind the creation of a toxic political environment in the Middle East in which terrorism flourishes. This “blame America first” outlook is all the more egregious because the movie was (loosely) based, at least in part, on the book See No Evil, written by former CIA case officer Robert Baer, which was an indictment of the bureaucratic inertia and political correctness that undermined U.S. counter-terrorism efforts before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

To counter the many conspiracy theories propagated by hostile governments and movements for political purposes, or by Hollywood to make a buck, it is important that the United States develops a strong public diplomacy effort to explain U.S. foreign policy goals, programs, and decisions. This is particularly important regarding the war in Iraq and the broader war against terrorism, where there is considerable suspicion about U.S. motives.

Taking the high road and ignoring the persistent appeal of anti-American conspiracy theories will not work. That will only allow conspiracy theories to fester, take root, and grow in strength. It is best to confront the theories head on and discredit them. U.S. officials should take every opportunity to knock down conspiracy theories, point out the logical inconsistencies in them, and expose the factual errors whenever possible. It would also be helpful to send non-government experts overseas to do the same.