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The View of American Empire by Two Stu Barbers as Shown in Island of Shame

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In the epilogue to Island of Shame, David Vine sets up a slight moment of shock by featuring a letter directed at the Washington Post, which called for “steps to redress the inexcusably inhuman wrongs inflicted on the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia and other Chagos group islands” (Vine 2011, pg. 197). The shock factor is manifested when Vine reveals that author of the letter was Stu Barber; the same Stu Barber that was considered the “the brains of the outfit” of “Op-93”, which led to implementation of the strategic island concept and the eventual relocation of the Chagossians. Throughout Vine’s account of the American empire as an “empire of bases” there is an impetus to delineate responsibility for the suffering of the Chagossians; Barber and friends at the Navy and the Pentagon seem to be the natural responsible parties, after all they were the main architects and implementers of the strategic island concept. Thus, Barber’s mea culpa represents a shift from the overwhelming narrative of the book that, to a degree, portrays him as personally responsible. Thus, the epilogue features the words of another Stu Barber, one that Vine tries to introduce through his personal history, but that ultimately must be distinguished as “Stu the man,” rather than “Stu the statesman.” It was “Stu the statesman,” or synonymously the bureaucrat who was in charge of “Op-93.” This difference is apparent in his choice of words, as in the letter he writes, “it is my firm opinion,” whereas the bureaucrat leans on the impersonal language of the cost-benefit analysis. Vine’s conceptualization of empire implicitly touches upon the relationship between bureaucratization and the proliferation of American imperial actions, however it remains one-dimensional because it does not fully succeed in explaining the logic of American imperialism. The increased military presence of the United States globally should be analyzed through a systemic framework, which converges the ideological drive of American imperialism and its concrete manifestations, of which military presence is but one aspect.

In order to understand the nature of the American empire and to break its cycle of denial, it is imperative to distinguish the man and the statesman. The failure to draw such a distinction is often the source of difficulty in describing this empire according to a concrete imperial typology. Historian and political scientist Alexander J. Motyl classifies empires as part of a matrix of dense v. loose and informal v. formal (Motyl 1999, pg. 128). David Vine’s “empire of bases,” by definition leans towards the type of a loose empire, since its military sphere of influence is geographically dispersed around the globe. The case study of the book, the displacement and relocation of the Chagossians takes place in the Indian Ocean, approximately 10,000 miles away from continental United States. American bases have become ubiquitous around the globe and the same could be said of American economic influence. However, establishing formality, defined by Motyl as the “the degree of control exerted by core elites over peripheral elites (pg. 128),” is ostensibly more difficult because first one needs to establish the imperial actor(s) and then consider the self-conception of these actors, both tasks which Vine engages in.

Motyl warns against the flawed conflation of empire with imperialism, for empire refers to a kind of polity whereas imperialism refers to a set of policies (pg. 131). From this follows that the United States has been engaging in imperialism since the westward expansion of the colonies and continues to do so in Vine’s “empire of bases.” However, imperialism does not always lead to empire, i.e. it is not always formalized in terms of a polity. For imperialism to be materialized into a polity there needs to be a cohesive conception of United States as a core ruling force. When citing Yale Ferguson and Richard Masnbach, Motyl suggests that this is quite a difficult conceptual task, since the subject that this conception needs to be ascribed to is fragmented. Typically, when there is talk of American empire and its actions, the subject is the state. Ferguson and Mansbach hold that this leads to the anthropomorphization of the state, “that is seen and treated analytically as unified actors (pg. 132).” In reality, the state is never itself an actor in global politics, largely due to fractured political factions, bureaucratic in fighting and interest group politics.

In order to further scrutinize Vine’s conceptualization of American empire through the framework that Motyl has developed, we need to look at the polity; the unifying structure that delineates the “empire of bases.” Although Vine’s account stretches as far back as 1955, there is no talk of party politics, despite the numerous commander-in-chiefs from both parties that, at the very least indirectly, were in charge of both the Pentagon and the Navy. In fact, the words republican or democrat are not even featured in the index of the book. This suggests that despite face-value political debates and factions between the two parties throughout this period, there was a certain consensus, logic or discourse that allowed for the proliferation of American imperialist actions. Such a logic or discourse is what can simply be referred to as ideology and its conducive apparatus, the site of appearance of the polity, is bureaucracy. Max Weber’s extensive account of bureaucracy is relevant here in several aspects. Weber wrote that:

“It is decisive for the modern loyalty to an office that it does not establish a relationship to a person like the vassal’s or disciple’s faith under feudal faith or patrimonial authority, but rather is devoted to impersonal and functional purposes (Sharma & Gupta 2009, pg. 51).”

“Objective” discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and “without regard for persons.” “Without regard for persons,” however, is also the watchword of the market and, in general, of all pursuits of naked economic interests (pg. 58).”

“The individual bureaucrat cannot squirm out of the apparatus into which he has been harnessed. In contrast to the “notable” performing administrative tasks as a honorific duty or a subsidiary occupation (avocation), the professional bureaucrat is chained to his activity in his entire economic and ideological existence (pg. 62).”

According to this view, the manifestation of two Stu Barbers becomes more apparent. “Stu the statesman” was constrained to the “objective discharge of business” in order to advance the interest of the United States and as such he had little consideration for Chagossians, until he could fully be “Stu the man” once again. However, as Motyl would likely interject, there are numerous bureaucracies around the world that never exhibit imperial interest, much less become empires. Bureaucracy is a site of reproduction of ideology, thus the imperial impetus that makes empires rests with the ideology itself. So then, what is the ideological drive behind American imperialism?

Anthropologist David Graeber would suggest that capitalism and imperialism are virtually inseparable. While the essence of capitalism is “the urge”, mirrored in the manner that economic activity itself is measured through the GDP, the logic of empire is expansionary (Graeber 2014). It follows that the ideological drive behind contemporary American imperialism is the proliferation of capitalist activity itself, what is generally referred to as neoliberalism or its more hyperbolized conceptualization of turbo capitalism. In true Marxist fashion, as capitalism reaches a crisis point, it is necessary to find new territories from which resources can be extracted. Such an analysis provides conceptual context for the reality of the “empire of bases.” Dominant political factions in the United States are united in their shared commitment to free markets, which nowadays have global reach. Thus, as Motyl argues, there is little sense in ascribing responsibility for the choice of empire to individual actors or groups of actors with the imperial sphere, for there is no choice to begin with. The imperial project can be unconscious or in the words of Motyl himself “there is no reason empires should not emerge among people and polities expressly opposed to empire and imperialism.” Under such conditions “the imperial relationship will be called something else – humanitarian intervention or peacekeeping, perhaps.”

Historical evidence solidifies the codification or manifestation of unconscious imperialism, which is fundamentally militarized such as the “empire of bases,” reproduced at the site of bureaucracy in order to serve naked economic interest. Woodrow Wilson has become the emblem of international liberalism and is often praised for his work in creating international governing bodies. International liberalism in more than one way opened the door for humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping mission, i.e. the infringement of state sovereignty and the fall of the Westphalia system. During a lecture at Columbia in 1907, Wilson stated the following:

“Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down…. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused. Peace itself becomes a matter of conference and international combinations.” (cited in Lens 2003)

The aforementioned ideological frameworks, which nowadays transpire party lines, are apparent in Wilson’s statement. What is also apparent is his willingness to use force and infringe the sovereignty of other states in order to advance economic interests. This is the same Woodrow Wilson that in 1887 published The Study of Administration advocating for the distinction between administrative questions and political questions, or to put it in Weberian terms, the impersonal and the personal. As President of the United States, he is often accredited for moving the public administration from a patrimonial configuration to a bureaucratic one. Wilson’s economic ideology informed his ideas about politics and the role of the United States in the world; he is not the father of the American imperial project, but indubitably a significant perpetrator. The fact that the American empire is in denial is symptomatic of its very own concealed imperial typology. “The empire of bases” is but one facet, albeit a very important one, of this typology, which can be confused as informal or even hegemonic, but in reality is formalized through a series of contractual obligation, both economic and political.

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The view of American Empire by Two Stu Barbers as shown in Island of Shame. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from
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