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Don’t betray us, Barack — end the empire

The film director Oliver Stone and the historian Peter Kuznick on how the US president can learn fro

"Suddenly, a season of peace seems to be warming the world," the New York Times exulted on the last day of July 1988. Protracted and bloody wars were ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua, and between Iran and Iraq. But the most dramatic development was still to come.

In December 1988, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared the cold war over. "The use or threat of force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy," he said. "This applies above all to nuclear arms."

He proposed cutting offensive strategic arms in half, jointly safeguarding the environment, banning weapons in outer space, ending exploitation of the third world and cancelling third world debt payments. He called for a UN-brokered ceasefire in Afghanistan, acknowled­ging that, after nine years, the Russians had failed to defeat the Afghan insurgents despite deploying 100,000 troops.

Still, he was not finished. He held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H W Bush, offering a "joint effort to put an end to an era of wars".

The New York Times described Gorbachev's riveting, hour-long speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Roosevelt and Churchill's Atlantic Charter in 1941. The Washington Post called it "a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations".

Gorbachev saw this as a new beginning for America, Russia and the world, but US policymakers had something very different in mind, hailing it as the triumph of the capitalist west after the long decades of the cold war.

In September 1990, Michael Mandelbaum, then director of east-west studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, rejoiced that "for the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III".

The US would soon test that hypothesis, beginning two decades of costly and destructive imperial overreach, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Middle East. It squandered a historic opportunity to make the world a more peaceful and just place, instead declaring itself the global hegemon. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the entire gaggle of neocons was extolling American power and beneficence. "We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join," crowed the military historian Max Boot.

Buzzsaw of opposition

Fast-forward to 2008, when Barack Obama swept to office on a wave of popular euphoria, mesmerising supporters with his inspiring biography, lofty and exhilarating rhetoric, welcome rejection of unilateralism and strong opposition to the Iraq war - qualities that made him seem the antithesis of George W Bush.

Bush and his empire-building advisers - the sorriest crew ever to run this country - had saddled him and the American people with an incredible mess. After two long and disastrous wars, trillions of dollars in military spending, torture and abuse of prisoners on several continents, an economic collapse and near-depression at home, disparities between rich and poor unheard of in an advanced industrial country, government surveillance on an unprecedented scale, collapsing infrastructure and a global reputation left in tatters, the US did not look all that attractive.

Obama has taken a bad situation and, in many ways, made it worse. He got off to a good start, immediately taking steps to reverse some of Bush's most outlandish policies - pledging to end torture and close the detention facility at Guantanamo as well as the network of CIA-administered secret prisons.

But he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from opportunistic Republicans and conservative Democrats over these and other progressive measures and has been in retreat ever since. As a result, his first two years in office have been a disappointment.

Instead of modelling himself after Gorba­chev and boldly championing deeply felt convictions and transformative policies, Obama has taken a page from the Bill (and Hillary) Clinton playbook and governed as a right-leaning centrist. While trying naively to ingratiate himself with an opposition bent solely on his defeat, he has repeatedly turned his back on those who put him in office.

Surrounding himself with Wall Street-friendly advisers and military hawks, he has sent more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; bailed out Wall Street banks while paying scant attention to the plight of the poor and working class; and enacted a tepid version of health reform that, while expanding coverage, represented a boondoggle for the insurance industry. And he has continued many of Bush's civil rights abuses, secrecy obsessions and neoliberal policies that allow the continued looting of the real economy by those who are obscenely wealthy.

Obama has also endorsed a military/security budget that continues to balloon. Recent accounting by Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project found that the US spends over $1.2trn out of its $3trn annual budget on "national security", when all related expenses are factored in.
Still, triumphalist rhetoric abounds. "People are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad," Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations. "So let me say it clearly: the United States can, must and will lead in this new century."

Despite such blather, the US has been relegated to the role of a supporting actor in the extraordinary democratic upheaval sweeping the Middle East. Decades of arming, training and supporting practically every "friendly" dictator in the region and the use of Egyptians as surrogate torturers have stripped the US of all moral authority.

Backbone required

Whatever good may have been done by Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 has been outweighed by US policy, capped by the indefensible US veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory as not only illegal, but an obstacle to peace. (The resolution was sponsored by at least 130 nations and supported by all 14 other members of the Security Council.)

Nor can anyone take seriously the US outrage about repressive regimes using force against their citizens after US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have directly or indirectly been responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the forced emigration of millions.
Where the foreign policy establishment sees only international peril, Obama should see an opportunity - the chance to reinvent himself - to reconnect with the Barack Obama who marched against nuclear weapons while at college and then promised to abolish them in a speech he gave in Prague in April 2009.

He should look to John F Kennedy for precedent. After two nearly disastrous years in office, Kennedy underwent a stunning reversal, repudiating the reckless cold war militarism that defined his early presidency. The Kennedy who was tragically assassinated in November 1963 was looking to end not only the US invasion of Vietnam, but the cold war.

We know from Bob Woodward that during policy discussions regarding Afghanistan, Obama was often the least bellicose person in the room. He has much to learn from Kennedy's scepticism towards military advisers and intelligence officials. As Kennedy told another celebrated journalist, Ben Bradlee: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that, just because they are military men, their opinions on military matters are worth a damn."

There are many ways in which Obama can begin overseeing the end of the American empire and the insane militarism that undergirds it. He has been urged to do so by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who has pressed Obama to stiffen his spine and pursue bold initiatives. "America needs perestroika right now," Gorba­chev said, "because the problems he has to deal with are not easy ones."

The former Soviet leader's solutions included restructuring the economy to eliminate the kind of unregulated free-market policies that caused the current global economic downturn and perpetuate the unconscionable gap between the world's rich and poor.

But, Gorbachev warned, the US can no longer dictate to the rest of the world: "Everyone is used to America as the shepherd that tells everyone what to do. But this period has already ended." He has condemned the Clinton and Bush administrations' dangerous militarisation of international politics and urged the US to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Obama, having wrapped himself even more tightly of late in his cocoon of Wall Street- and empire-friendly advisers, has shown no inclination to heed Gorbachev's advice. He would be wise to do so, because the older man oversaw the dismantling of the USSR in a smoother and more peaceful way than anyone believed possible, and so knows something about bringing the curtain down on a dysfunctional empire that has long overstayed its welcome.

If Obama would seize the opportunity for peace that the Bushes and Clintons seem so intent on strangling in its cradle, perhaps the vision that Gorbachev so brilliantly articulated in 1988 can finally become a reality.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, along with teacher Matt Graham, are finishing a 12-hour documentary "The Forgotten History of the United States," covering the period from 1900 to 2010. This will be premiered later this year in the United States from Showtime. Sky Television is scheduled to premiere the series in the United Kingdom.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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From Beyoncé to Little Mix (via Kendall Jenner): how protest went pop

Branding, messages of empowerment and fashion trends all converge in female-fronted pop videos, which are increasingly using protest imagery. 

In case you hadn’t noticed – protesting is on trend. Politics and fashion have had an uneasy relationship for decades, but in the last few years, the idea of performing a protest as a fashion statement has ramped up. Catwalk “protests” have wildly varying degrees of political sincerity, from Vivienne Westwood’s anti-austerity protest in 2016 to Chanel’s bizarre faux-feminist demonstration on their S/S 15 catwalk, which featured more vague and nonsensical slogans like “Make Fashion Not War”.

Missoni’s pink cat-eared hats make you look like you’re permanently at the Women’s March on Washington, Balenciaga’s 2017 menswear collection included items usually found at a Bernie Sanders rally. Editorials, too, have played around with placards and megaphones: Fashion Gone Rogue’s “The Protest of Venus” editorial, Wad magazine’s “Slut Cat Walk”, Vogue Paris’s “Reality Show”.

It’s not just a high fashion trend, either. High street brands have taken up the placards and protests aesthetic, from Rachel Antonoff’s And Other Stories campaign to Monki’s “#monkifesto”. And in 2017, we don’t need reminding that protests are often used to sell things other than clothes. Fashion model Kendall Jenner’s disastrous Pepsi advert, which featured protesters holding generic placards promoting such radical ideas as “love” and “peace”, comes from a long line of brands using activism in advertising (from Levi’s controversial “Go Forth” video to the original movement marketing, Coca Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”).

Of course, fashion’s idea of an aesthetically pleasing protest often looks very different to the real thing. Genuine anger is filtered out for something more clean, posed and choreographed. The branded protest imagery might feel superficially empowering but is divorced from the radical messages of its origins.  

Branding, messages of empowerment and fashion trends all converge in female-fronted pop videos, which are increasingly using protest imagery. While some videos, like Rihanna’s “American Oxygen”, rely on footage of actual protests, more dramatise them in a way that feels particularly influenced by fashion and advertising.

As with most pop culture analysis, we could start with Beyoncé, whose video for “Run The World (Girls)” features a group of women (and, of course, a lion) gathered in the middle of a desert with red flags emblazoned with a black “B”, faced off by a male SWAT team. They are in coordinating outfits, deliberately arranged – some on top of a car, some stood in uniform rows, some crouched on the floor – and motionless, the only movement the wind fluttering through the flags. With hands on hips and chins held high, the models stare down the camera as though posing for a print editorial.

Until Beyoncé slowly approaches the men and starts dancing. At first, the women behind simply salute and raise their firsts with alternating hands, but eventually Beyoncé leads the women in the finest gender-segregated dance off yet (surpassing even Christina Aguilera's “Can’t Hold Us Down”). While music videos invoking protest and militaristic imagery often feel like cold, corporate endorsements of empowerment feminism, Beyoncé’s decades-long association with girl power, and the sheer fierce energy of the song lend it a sincerity which later videos lack.

Take, for example, London-born singer Dua Lipa’s video for her regrettably catchy single “Blow Your Mind”. The video features Dua Lipa and a group of impossibly beautiful women in designer outfits incongruously protesting inside one of the most expensive, desirable and exclusive estates in central London – the Barbican.

“Blow Your Mind” begins with a series of more traditional tracking shots of Dua Lipa and her friends in fixed poses. The camera pans over details in their clothing as they stand either totally still, or with a very small level movement, in a combination of slow motion and standard shots. The focus feels firmly on the clothing, which are a mix of colourful, ostentatious fashion items and punk aesthetics. Structured, poised and glossy, you half expect brand names, prices and the odd “model’s own” to appear in white serif text at the side of the screen.

The protest element enters the video during the second chorus: the group raises placards bearing vague slogans: “Dua for President”, “I Predict a Riot Baby”, “Kiss and Make Up”, “Not Your Babe”, “We are One” and “You Can Sit With Us”. There are a mass of contradictions here – Dua Lipa’s lyrics and the video’s props (patches, safety pins, placards, flags) work to create an anti-capitalist sentiment within a polished, consumerist framework.

The film feels influenced by that Chanel runway show (as well as borrowing heavily from the genuinely political video for Skepta’s “Shutdown”). Here, too, protest imagery is appropriated in service of a brand, but here the brand is Dua Lipa herself. Arguably, Beyoncé does this too with her “B” flags, but her song is actually about feminism: girls can run the world. Dua Lipa’s lyrics don’t reference any political movement, but like an advert for a major label, nods to her name and song appear throughout – from the custom bejewelled MWAH collar to the “Dua for President” placard to the “Blow Your Mind” banner. And despite the racial diversity of this group of women, and the inclusivity of some of the placards, like the Mean Girls-referencing “You Can Sit With Us”, there’s still a deliberate cool-girl vibe at play here. The video purports to be a celebration of equality and inclusivity, but is in actuality an exclusive, private party in an exclusive, private space.

Last week, British pop group Little Mix made their contribution to the canon with their video for “Power”. Another specifically girl-power oriented song, featuring the refrain “Baby, you’re the man / But I got the power”, it ends with all the members of Little Mix and their mothers (literally) leading a protest march.

It’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s colourful. But like that Pepsi ad, “Blow Your Mind” and the Chanel catwalk, it too is plagued by vague signage: Love, Peace, Make Love Not War. Still, there are hints of something ever so slightly more radical: the odd rainbow flag, the Venus symbol and “girl power” slogans.

The fear is that when protests become trendy, they co-opt genuine movements for capitalist aims (the Pepsi ad is a case in point). But music videos, which aren’t quite adverts but also aren’t quite straightforward works of art isolated from a capitalist system, are trickier to ethically pin down. I’m sure there’s plenty that could be seen as problematic at work in all three of these videos, but if a young girl watches a fun, exciting, sexy video like Little Mix’s “Power” and is introduced to wider concepts of feminism, then I’m all for it. Even if I won’t be holding a “Make Fashion Not War” sign any time soon.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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