Foreign Policy in Fashion

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Art, Articles

Consider the Bush administration’s preferred garb. George W. Bush favored the flight suit look when he landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in May 2003 for his premature enunciation that the Iraq War was over. The press went wild. “Here’s a president who’s really nonverbal,” Chris Matthews said, turning “nonverbal” for the first time into high praise. “He’s like Eisenhower. He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West.”

Not to be outdone, Vice President Dick Cheney donned hunter’s cap and shouldered his gun to provide the administration with some additional street cred with the National Rifle Association. And don’t forget Condoleezza Rice’s Matrix-gear from her trip to Germany in 2005: the black skirt, the long black coat, and the black knee-high boots that “speak of sex and power,” as The Washington Post aptly described the outfit.

How quickly a particular style can go out of fashion. The Obama administration leans toward the economic rather than the military look. During the campaign, Barack Obama frequently rolled up his sleeves. As president, he raised critics’ eyebrows for not wearing his suit jacket in the White House, with former Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card fatuously comparing the Oval Office to a locker room. The criticism isn’t sticking. The president is projecting a no-nonsense, back-to-business look: more Clark Kent than Superman.

Michelle Obama, meanwhile, has captured the headlines and the magazine covers with her haute couture. A trio of First Ladies graces the cover of The New Yorker. Oprah was moved to share the cover of O for the first time in its publishing history. New York magazine has devoted an entire issue to her style. And, of course, there’s a blog devoted to nothing but her attire. It’s a far cry from the “angry black woman” label the conservative press tried to pin on her. The presidential image consultants have worked overtime to soften her image and suggest a regal, “Jackie O” persona. But it’s also interesting that the only muscle talked about in relation to the Obama administration is the First Lady’s biceps, which she has bared in several sleeveless dresses.

The United States remains, however, a country at war. So, as revealed in a candid photo from December of a shirtless president-elect on a Hawaiian vacation, there’s some muscle underneath the civilian attire. The Obama administration is sending more troops to Afghanistan, increasing the military budget, and expanding the overall army. This enduring reliance on military force prompted Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Christine Ahn and FPIF contributor Gwyn Kirk to stage a recent fashion show to expose the subtle ways that militarism creeps into our national budgets, foreign policies, and interpersonal relationships.

Down the runway marched a series of models portraying the latest in military chic. Take, for example, the outfit entitled “Militarized National Budget.” “The chic camouflage jacket represents the half of the discretionary federal budget devoted to war, and the skirt shows the other half of the budget allocated to civilian needs,” Ahn and Kirk write. “Patterned after a pie chart, the colors on the skirt are blue for health, yellow for energy, red for transportation, and purple for international affairs. Tucked between the pleats of the skirt is more camouflage, representing more military spending: the Veterans Administration sneaks into the health budget, Homeland Security creeps into transportation, NASA and nuclear weapons research is buried in energy, and international affairs money trains foreign troops.” To read about more of the outfits and see them in full color, check out Fashioning Resistance to Militarism. And you can come to your own conclusion about the administration’s new clothes.

Radical Sights and Sounds

Elsewhere in our Fiesta! coverage of the intersection of culture and foreign policy, FPIF contributor Farrah Hassen reviews the Israeli movie Waltz with Bashir. The animated documentary looks at Israeli responsibility for the civilian massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982. “Waltz with Bashir doesn’t hit filmgoers with the message, ‘End the Occupation!’” she writes in A Waltz for the War-Weary. “And it doesn’t address the victims’ point of view. The Israeli government is even promoting the film because it fingers the Phalangists rather than Israeli soldiers as the direct culprits in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Still, by focusing on the impact of the first Lebanon war on Israeli soldiers, the film doesn’t dance around the essential point: the senselessness of Israel’s military actions and the need for more discussion about alternatives.”

Around the Gaza conflict, meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian bloggers and YouTubers used the new media to get their messages out. “Shadowing the animosity on the ground, partisans continue to trade salvos on the wireless frontiers of battle,” writes FPIF contributor Ethan Pack in The War Online. “Yet alongside the digitally reinforced hostilities, traces of common interest are breaking through Arab and Israeli new media. On YouTube, blogs, and social networking sites, the extreme terms of the ongoing violence are at once documented, exchanged, and translated for each side in turn.”

We are an image-obsessed culture. But some artists focus not on sight but on sound. FPIF contributor Niels Van Tomme talks with Robert Sember of the radical sound collective Ultra-red. One of their works, We Come From Your Future, brought together immigrants, those who suffered racist attacks, and organizations working on migration issues to talk and, most importantly, to listen.

“At one point a young Polish couple, a woman and her husband, spoke of difficulties arising from their migrant status, and it echoed sentiments made by an older woman of West Indian descent who had lived in England her whole life,” Sember recalls in Radical Sound Activism. “Despite racial, geographic, and generational differences, there was a recognition of what was common in the experiences of each other. During the period of discussion that ended the event, this led to the elaboration of structures common to racism and the anti-migrant sentiment among many in England by the participants. The protocol for the event offered opportunities for participants to hear each other as they spoke and then to continue that listening in the form of writing. Hearing pens scratching on paper at the same time suggested an extraordinary common purpose and gave deliberateness to the listening.”

Rounding out Fiesta! this week are two poems. In From an Iranian Mother to an American Mother, FPIF contributor Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi writes about how different the reception will be if a young American man comes to Iran as a tourist and as a soldier. And in Indictment – Grand Jury Duty, FPIF contributor Susan Brennan looks at Homeland Security from a unique perspective.

Success in Africa and Mexico?

Surveying the wreckage that was the Bush administration’s foreign policy, acting Assistant Secretary of State Phil Carter declared in early February that Africa was the exception: a certifiable success.

In their special report Making Peace or Fueling War in Africa, FPIF contributors Daniel Volman and William Minter take issue with this perspective. They look at AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s new Africa Command, U.S. military involvement in Somalia, counterterrorism in the Sahel, and energy policy in Nigeria and conclude that U.S. policy toward Africa over the last eight years has been deeply flawed. For the most part, the Obama administration is continuing these policies. “Nevertheless, there are also signals that U.S. officials, including some in the military and intelligence community, do recognize the need to give greater emphasis to diplomacy and development,” Volman and Minter write. “The initial U.S. welcome to the election of moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as president of Somalia is potentially an indicator of a new approach to that complex crisis.”

FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen looks this week at the mixed signals coming out of the U.S. media and political world concerning Mexico. The government of Felipe Calderón is simultaneously steering the country toward collapse and yet managing somehow to effectively prosecute the drug war. “Drug-war doublespeak pervades and defines the U.S.-Mexico relationship today,” she writes. “The discourse aims not to win the war on drugs but to assure funding and public support for the military model of combating illegal drug trafficking, despite the losses and overwhelming evidence that current strategies are not working.”

Few observers have viewed the victory of the hard right in the Israeli elections as a positive sign for peace in the Middle East. But FPIF contributor Benjamin Tua offers a contrary perspective in Gaza: The Way Forward. “A right-of-center government headed by Netanyahu might be best positioned to make the difficult compromises and decisions regarding first the reality of Hamas as a force in Palestinian political life and then on the settlements and Jerusalem,” he writes. “These actions might well lead his country to a truly historic move towards peace with its neighbors. In this, Netanyahu would be following on the example set by the Likud’s Menachem Begin with respect to Egypt.”

Also, in our Empire strategic focus, we feature a trio of interviews. We talk with FPIF columnist Michael Klare about arms, energy, and empire. And FPIF staff Miriam Pemberton and John Feffer talk with Real News in a two-part series on empire and U.S. bases.

Finally, FPIF’s Erik Leaver offers a pair of policy outlooks for Iraq and Afghanistan. They are helpful distillations of what to expect on the legislative front in these two critical battle zones in 2009. And they are also a reminder that short, clear, and farsighted analyses are never out of fashion.

FPIF, March 17, 2009

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