Stephen M. Walt

On ‘conspiracy theories’

In May 2003, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavitz that the invasion of Iraq was: “[T]he war the neoconservatives wanted … the war the neoconservatives marketed. .. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at the moment within a five-block radius of this office [in ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In May 2003, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavitz that the invasion of Iraq was:

“[T]he war the neoconservatives wanted … the war the neoconservatives marketed. .. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at the moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.”

Was Friedman advancing a “conspiracy theory” to explain the invasion of Iraq? Is it proper to regard the neoconservative movement — and especially those neocons who were the loudest cheerleaders for invading Iraq — as a conspiracy or cabal, as some writers have? I don’t think so.  I have plenty of disagreements with the neoconservative approach to U.S. foreign policy, and I think there’s no question they played a central role in leading the United States into Iraq, but to characterize them as a cabal or conspiracy is misleading, counter-productive, and possibly dangerous.

As we know from a number of important books — including Richard Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, David Aaronovitch’s recent Voodoo Histories, and Kathryn Olmsted’s Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy — conspiracy theories have a long and unhappy history in the United States (and elsewhere).  Prominent examples include assorted plots involving Freemasons, preposterous claims about secret Jewish influence (such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious Czarist-era forgery), or the claims that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA, or that the U.S. government faked the 1969 moon landing. More recent versions are the 9/11 “truther” movement, which portrays the 9/11 attacks as a secret plot by the U.S. government, and virtually any of the claims put forward by Lyndon LaRouche. Glenn Beck’s TV show is an equally fertile source of absurd but scary notions about current U.S. politics.  (See here for Jon Stewart’s lethal lampooning of Beck’s style of “reasoning.”)

Conspiracy theories take many forms, but they generally have several common features. First, they often claim to expose the secret machinations of a small group of individuals, acting to accomplish some nefarious but largely-hidden purpose. Second, they attribute to the designated group vast and far-reaching powers, including a mysterious ability to control (rather than simply influence) a wide array of institutions. Yet a conspiracy theory (as opposed to a careful institutional analysis) never identifies the precise mechanisms by which this alleged control is achieved and normally fails to provide concrete evidence to justify its far-reaching claims. Alternatively, conspiracy theorists sometimes suggest that “the government” is engaged in some enormously-important but covert activity, like hiding captured alien spacecraft at “Area 51” or arranging to bring down the World Trade Center while getting it blamed on al Qaeda. In virtually all cases, a good conspiracy theory implies that what you think you know about the world is dead wrong, usually because the people responsible for the conspiracy have managed to convince you that up is down and black is white.

In general, conspiracy theories tend to ignore Occam’s Razor — the idea that simple and direct explanations are preferable — and instead offer convoluted accounts designed to explain away contradictory evidence. They also tend to portray the world as far more organized and consistent than it really is: once you know the real truth, so they claim, then everything falls into place. To do this, conspiracy theorists often squeeze a host of unrelated phenomena into some larger pattern, on the basis of unproven and far-fetched connections.  (Again, Glenn Beck is the contemporary master of this sort of dubious reasoning). 

Conspiracy theories also tend to be short on definitive, “smoking-gun” evidence, and may even be impossible to disprove. Indeed, the absence of hard evidence can be interpreted as support for the theory, because an all-powerful but secret cabal would have every reason to cover its tracks and obviously be adept at doing so. So the less hard evidence you can find, the more it proves the theory! Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations about a vast communist conspiracy within the U.S. government took root in part because his assertions were hard to disprove: if we couldn’t find any real communists in the State Department, maybe that was because those diabolical Bolsheviks were unusually good at hiding their true affinities.

It should be obvious that the neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq do not fit this definition, and the wide array of people who now hold them partly responsible for the decision to invade Iraq are not advancing a very controversial notion. Far from being secretive, the various think tanks, committees, foundations and publications that nurtured the neoconservative movement have courted publicity from the very beginning, just as other policy networks do. Instead of concealing their goals-such as the ouster of Saddam Hussein-they were clear about what they thought the United States should do.  It is a pretty weird “conspiracy” whose leaders routinely appear on national television to proclaim their policy goals, and whose members sign their names to open letters advising government officials what to do. And in those heady “Mission Accomplished” days when Iraq seemed like a great success, neoconservatives were quick to claim credit for it.  This is not the way a “secret cabal” normally behaves.

The persistence of conspiracy theorizing is disturbing for two quite different reasons.  First, because real “conspiracy theories” blame all or most of society’s ills on the hidden influence of evil officialdom or some disloyal group, they encourage hatred and violence against ethnic or religious minorities or populist violence against public officials. One need only think of the Nazi era or the Oklahoma City bombings to see where this sort of thinking can lead. 

Second, the prevalence of conspiracy theories makes it harder to have a serious discussion about all of the different ways that interest groups or policy networks operate when seeking to advance some political cause. “Conspiracy theories” are almost always bogus, but that does not mean that “private political collusion” does not occur.  In fact, an enormous amount of political activity begins with a small group of people getting together to advance some political goal. Because politics is a competitive activity, contending groups often conceal their goals and strategies from potential opponents, so that the latter can’t take action to thwart them. By this standard, the American revolutionaries, the civil rights movement, the Council for National Policy, the Committee on the Present Danger, and the Bolsheviks were all “conspiracies,” in the sense that they were small groups of people who came together to privately plan a course of political action. 

Unfortunately, the word “conspiracy” carries powerful negative connotations and immediately invokes the crackpot variety of theorizing discussed above.  As a result, if someone argues that a particular group or network is trying to exert a significant impact on some aspect of foreign or domestic policy, and that it is not being completely open about either its aims or its plans, that person may be accused of advancing some sort of “conspiracy theory.”  In other words, people who are in fact engaged in covert political collusion can use the crackpot variety of conspiracy theory to discredit potential critics, and even to discourage investigation or discussion of what they are doing. Ironically, bizarre and harmful notions like the Protocols, the 9/11 truthers, or the anti-Obama “birthers” make it harder for scholars, journalists, and ordinary citizens to evaluate the ways that a wide variety of groups may collude in private, and the effects this may have on public policy. 

In her new book Shadow Elite, social anthropologist Janine Wedel offers a better way to think about the phenomenon of private political collusion. Wedel devotes one chapter of the book to “the neocon core”, which she portrays as a network of well-connected and like-minded elites operating in several sectors of society simultaneously. Not only could the neoconservatives plan campaigns privately, but they could lend each other mutual support at key moments, and mobilize activity in several sectors of society (i..e., government, academia, media, business, etc.) at the same time. There is nothing unusual or “conspiratorial” about such behavior; on the contrary, Wedel argues that what she calls “flex-nets” (a term connoting the flexible professional identities of many members of these networks) are increasingly prevalent in a number of different issue-areas.

This approach avoids the distorting language of “conspiracy” or “cabal,” with all the negative (and misleading) connotations that such terms contain.  At the same time, it helps us see how relatively small groups of people can exert enduring influence in different policy domains, even when their past advice has often been disastrous. If well-connected elites are largely insulated from failure, and if ordinary citizens are unaware of the different connections and interests that bind key elites to one another, then the public (and even some policymakers) cannot accurately evaluate their advice or act to exclude them from power. If Wedel is right, the growing prominence of these “shadow elites” may be undermining the accountability that is essential to a healthy democracy.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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