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Action movie Arabs and the American call to endless war: The role of American Orientalism in organizing the United States "response" to the 9/11 attacks

Nessim John Watson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This history of American Orientalism uses articulation theory to map the processes by which discourse around the representation of Arabs and Muslims moved from the symbolic to the material, resulting in public support for the 2003 War on Iraq. By tracing the circulation of images and meanings in both American popular culture and U.S. foreign policy, this dissertation argues that American Orientalism from the former, was increasingly drawn upon by foreign policy makers to nullify the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome," the American public's learned aversion to direct military intervention abroad. The action movie genre, and its use of American Orientalism to construct an American identity in binary opposition to its Arab Other, are shown to have contributed to the rise of a neo-conservative foreign policy paradigm in the United States, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, and advancing to full dominance with George W. Bush's open declaration of his "War on Terror," based on a pre-emptive and potentially unlimited war doctrine. The contradictory constructions of the Middle East and their non-essential correspondences to changing economic, political and cultural contexts, are demonstrated by following the development of American Orientalism in U.S. culture and foreign policy discourse since the late 1800's, using a communication influenced, critical cultural studies approach guided by the theories of Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, and Stuart Hall. The representative opposition of Arab and American identities, and American Orientalism's internal consistency across disparate spheres of discourse, are shown to have increased around the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973, as well as the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, conflating representations of Arabs, of Muslims, and of terrorism. Action movies of the 1980's and 1990's constructed a new American identity, whose politics, articulated to neo-conservative calls for a "resurgent America," are potentially more damaging than Hollywood's proliferation of Arab stereotypes. This dissertation closely examines the presence of American Orientalism, and accompanying support for neo-conservativism, in the public relations strategies of the 1991 Gulf War, in the films True Lies, Executive Decision, and The Siege, and in the televised statements of George W. Bush given during the days after September 11, 2001.

Subject Area

Mass media|Motion pictures|American studies

Recommended Citation

Watson, Nessim John, "Action movie Arabs and the American call to endless war: The role of American Orientalism in organizing the United States "response" to the 9/11 attacks" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3193956.