Trump Stance on Iraq Oil Helps ISIS
At last week’s Commander-in-Chief forum on NBC television, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said (twice for emphasis), “Take the Oil,” when questioned about how to keep ISIS from recapturing contested areas of Iraq.
His proposals for Iraqi oil, if they ever became U.S. policy, would have a chilling effect on American efforts to maintain its broad coalition against ISIS and, due to his cavalier dismissal of international standards of behavior, poison U.S. relations throughout the world. They are likely already doing damage to American efforts to combat terrorism.
Some elements of Trump’s views on Iraqi oil are defensible and compatible with long-time U.S. policy. Since World War II, U.S. military contingency plans have included components to maintain U.S. access to Persian Gulf oil and keep it out of the hands of external forces that pose a threat to our interests. To a large extent, that’s why we now have the Central Command available to deal with that region’s problems.
The current administration has already seriously damaged the ability of ISIS to raise money from oil, which has weakened the viability of its military operations; though probably not its low-cost digital media campaign to inspire terrorism, the greater long-term threat to Americans.
But Trump’s response to former Marine Corps captain Phil Klay (author of the award-winning book Redeployment) last Wednesday night broke new and dangerous ground.
The major misstep on energy came when Trump linked his oil plan to an endorsement of a “spoils of war” doctrine abandoned ages by most of the civilized world.
In a follow-up to moderator Matt Lauer, Trump proposed seizing Iraqi oil and leaving behind “a certain group” to protect it. What Trump apparently did not realize, Iraq’s oil resources are spread around the country, the vast bulk of them far distant from and not vulnerable to ISIS operations. Presumably, we would establish little Guantanamo-like enclaves around each far-flung oil well and refinery and maintain constant surveillance of pipelines and ports, which would increasingly become major targets of terrorist attacks. The result of Trump’s policies would then be attacks coming from both Sunnis and Shiites.
It is hard to overstate the stupidity of this idea. Even our allies in the Middle East regard oil in their lands as a gift from God and the only major source of income to develop their countries. Seizing Iraq’s oil would make our current allies against ISIS our new enemies. We would likely, at the least, have to return to the massive military expenditures and deployment of American troops at the war’s peak.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University told the Washington Post’s Steve Mufson last week that the occupation would probably cost “more than the oil itself. The whole idea is beyond goofy.”
It’s hard to imagine why American oil companies would want to cut back investments in, say, the Permian Basin of West Texas or North Dakota’s Bakken shale to expose their employees to the dangers of an Iraq further inflamed by the reaction to Trump’s policies.* The ramifications of the new Trump doctrine would be felt well beyond Iraq. A new American assertion of its right to the spoils of war, even when allies are dying at our side, would make it almost impossible to forge new alliances in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Trump seems oblivious to the respect accorded the United States because it has for a long time eschewed spoils of war policies.
There have been exceptions. Americans helped overthrow the government of Iran in 1953, because its leader Mohammad Mossadeq had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, after which the United States forced Anglo-Iranian (later BP) to share its assets with American firms – a strategy producing some short-term benefits and several long-term disasters. The U.S.-led Coalition Authority that ruled Iraq from April of 2003 to June of 2004 dismantled Iraq’s state oil company and barred French and Russian companies from competing for reconstruction contracts, thus rewarding with the spoils of war companies from the United States and Britain, who had furnished the troops for the invasion. American officials wisely abandoned this strategy when it became apparent it would constitute an insurmountable barrier to establishing a friendly civilian government.
Trump is a professed admirer of Douglas MacArthur, and he would be well-served to study the general’s service as Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces during the occupation of Japan after World War II. The Japanese people, fearful of the possibility of pillaging victors, found instead that MacArthur was focused initially on ending starvation and then on political, economic, and civil reform. By giving up the spoils of war, MacArthur and the United States earned the respect of the Japanese and the world, helping legitimize America’s status as leader of the free world.
The United States has traditionally articulated noble motives for its foreign interventions, though sometimes failing to follow through on wartime promises. The rhetoric of morality has helped rally foreign troops on our side and, in the case of potential recruits for Middle East-based terrorists, refutes the idea we are fighting solely to aggrandize our economic interests.
For Trump, imperious values, like to the victor belong the spoils, may elate some super nationalists at home. But his approach helps motivate our enemies on the field of battle, further endangering our troops, and raises the risks to people within our borders, since his statements play into the ISIS narrative of the global struggle used to recruit the next generation of terrorists.
Trump has been the first presidential nominee to be a climate change denier. Now, he is the first to publicly espouse a “spoils of war” doctrine as part of our international energy and security strategy. Whether he wins or loses, he will be remembered as having the two least defensible energy policies in modern American history.
As the Republican-nominated presidential candidate, Trump no longer speaks just for himself. He represents one the nation’s two major parties, including its elected leaders, battalions of political consultants, and down ballot candidates. They all need to explain why they want to provide more fodder for ISIS efforts to inspire terrorism.