Who Cares What Celebs Say About Iraq?

Even before last weekend's massive peace protests, activists harnessed a potent weapon to combat the drums of war: star power.

From Martin Sheen and Kurt Vonnegut signing public anti-war petitions, to Danny Glover rallying crowds of protesters, to Madonna filming an anti-war video for her new single, celebrities have been leading the opposition to war in Iraq.

Sheen and a host of other Hollywood fixtures on Wednesday unveiled a new ad campaign aimed at leveraging their star status against military action in the Persian Gulf. The group behind the ads counts 190 actors as supporters.

"Celebrities are trying to set the agenda in a way they didn't earlier," says Darrell West, director of the Center for Public Policy & American Institutions at Brown University and co-author of Celebrity Politics.

"We're seeing a lot more effort to mobilize celebrities because people realize their power."

Fame and Foreign Policy Mix

While anti-war activists emphasize the academics and experts among their ranks, and point to the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators last weekend, they acknowledge the importance of celebrities in getting their message out.

"They know they can help draw media attention to the massive public opposition to war in Iraq," says Lynn Erskine, a spokeswoman for Win Without War.

So the anti-war movement has seen Sean Penn visiting Baghdad, Martin Scorsese talking to British radio, and Dustin Hoffman speaking out during an awards show in London.

"I may be wrong," Hoffman said. "I am no expert. This war is about what most wars are about: hegemony, money, power and oil."

A Natural Choice for a Star-Struck Country

It's difficult to measure the impact of celebrity efforts on the Iraq issue, but social scientists say they do have an effect.

"My gut reaction would be that celebrities do have an impact," says Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University. "The more celebrities that speak out, the more the American people will question where the war is worth it."

"After all, we are a celebrity-oriented society," he says.

"I think the U.S. is a country where celebrity is essentially the most important way to get public attention on any issue," agrees Stephan Schmidt, a Political Science professor at Iowa State University.

"They do get a lot of attention, support, and sometimes I think pretty serious respect from younger people."

Opponents of military intervention in Iraq by and large seem happy to have famous people leading the effort.

"Celebrities command a lot of attention," says Andrew Boyd, 39, a writer and participant in last weekend's anti-war march in New York City.

"I think it's important that these people speak out against the war. I think it's very important. It helps a lot."

Sean Penn, ‘Bomb Expert’

While star power has helped generate headlines, it has also brought a backlash.

"Certainly it's an easy, simple target, to say celebrities are simple and foolish and should shut up," admits Robert Greenwald, a television producer who helped create Artists United to Win Without War. Virtually all the luminaries in the anti-war movement have taken pains to say they are not anti-American, pro-Saddam, or unsupportive of the American Military. But they have been easy targets, nonetheless.

Penn's December Baghdad trip in particular drew the scorn of the late-night talk shows and other media outlets.

The New York Post gleefully labeled him "Baghdad Sean." The tabloid even offered a top 10 list why Penn would be a great arms inspector, saying he had his own biological weapon "foot-in-mouth disease," and knew something about bombs because of his work on the movie Shanghai Surprise.

Penn even received bad press about the amount of bad press devoted to his anti-war efforts. "Dead man talking," muttered The Associated Press, unable to resist punning the title of one of the star's movies. "A star is scorned," read a Washington Times headline.

Penn has claimed his political activism cost him a movie role and has sued producer Steve Bing over the matter. Bing promptly counter-sued Penn.

The conservative press has been particularly hard on celebrity involvement in opposing war in Iraq.

"Thank God for America's valiant army of really dumb celebrity-intellectuals, without whom there'd be almost nothing to smile about," crowed the Weekly Standard magazine last month.

The conservative National Review titled a piece about John Le Carre, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Jerk," after the spy writer released a statement rebuking U.S. foreign policy.

While most famous faces that have spoken out have been against war, a handful have voiced their support for President Bush, including Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and Dennis Miller. Activists on both sides of the issue have accused their ideological foes of singling out celebrities instead of focusing on the issues.

Anti-War Experts Are Ignored, Complain Celebs

Even those involved in the anti-war movement admit that celebrity activism is not ideal.

In an interview with Canadian radio, George Clooney conceded his opinions are no more informed than the average American's.

"I'm not the person to be sending messages to — I'm not smart enough and I don't know enough about what's going on," Clooney said. "I just want it to be talked about and discussed a lot more before one man makes a decision to go in and bomb."

The comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo, one of the most vocal celebrities among anti-war activists, agrees.

"I absolutely realize that a celebrity spokesperson is not ideal," she says. "I don't like it and I don't like to do it."

Garofalo thinks the media has ignored policy experts opposed to an Iraq war and focused instead on celebrities in part to discredit anti-war protestors.

"It's clearly biased and loaded to make the actor look foolish, thereby marginalizing the movement," she says.

But she defends her vocal stance against those who say celebrities should stick to their scripts.

"That's like saying everyone in the food-service industry is not entitled to speak out," she complains.

Some people think celebrities are a natural choice for the movement, however.

"Celebrities command a lot of attention — it's the new religion, it's a contemporary religion," said Boyd. "People pay attention."