Early in his unfortunately-historic campaign for President, Donald Trump said that he would get rid of ISIS by bombing the bejesus out of their oil fields and getting American oil companies to set up shop and “take the oil.” Said companies would then extract as much oil as possible and send it to the U.S., thus depriving ISIS of Iraqi oil money while enriching the American people. This comment raised a bunch of eyebrows, but it didn’t get the attention it should have, especially from his more hawkish political opponents in the Republican primary campaign.
I don’t usually read or agree with the National Review (considering that it’s a conservative news magazine founded by William F. Buckley) but they actually did a pretty good job of tracking down all the times Trump has supported this idea in the past. As the article mentions, he said the same thing in April 2011 when NATO forces launched combat operations in Libya (in this case, stopping Iran and al-Qaeda from taking the oil in each country). Since the article’s publishing, his idea has popped up from time to time, notably at Matt Lauer’s Commander-in-Chief forum this September (quoted below) and in front of the Wall of Heroes at the CIA (also quoted below). All emphasis mine.
TRUMP: …Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.
One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is ISIS would not have been able to take oil and use that oil…
LAUER: Let me stay on ISIS…
TRUMP: … to fuel themselves.
From his CIA visit:
The old expression, “to the victor belong the spoils” — you remember. I always used to say, keep the oil. I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil. Now, I said it for economic reasons…
Now, it’s certainly true that ISIS managed to profit massively from seizing Iraq’s oilfields and selling around 45,000 barrels/day of black-market crude to bring in somewhere around a million dollars a day. For a large organization like ISIS, that’s plenty to offset personnel costs and maintain a limited amount of infrastructure and government across their territory in Iraq and Syria. If Trump were to suggest that the United States should bomb Iraq’s oil infrastructure and then stop there, that would make sense. After all, that’s what we’ve been doing for years, specifically since 2014. Crippling the ability of terrorists to profit off of illegal oil sales is the first step in loosening their hold over territory – less money means fewer soldiers get the salaries they were promised. Anyways, crackdowns and airstrikes have severely reduced their revenue, and the loss of territory means they can’t sell refined oil products to as many of their subjects. Obviously, this has to be followed up with ground forces to secure the oilfields and/or put out the fires raging from them.
If Trump had just said “we should bomb the oilfields that ISIS is using,” that would have been fine. Hell, I would have commended it for being more reasonable than, say, Ted Cruz’s idiotic suggestion to carpet bomb ISIS forces (but not civilians) until the sand glows red (another military policy comment that made me groan out loud in the middle of a Republican debate).
- To briefly sidetrack for those who are not versed in strategic warfare, the practice of carpet bombing is another way to say “we’re going to turn an entire city into a parking lot.” There is no such thing as precision carpet-bombing where you can kill terrorists and leave everyone else unharmed, because the whole point of carpet-bombing is that an entire grid of land is reduced to rubble. For Ted Cruz, a sitting United States Senator with assignments to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the associated Subcommittee on Strategic Forces (you know, the kind that deals with oversight regarding strategic bombing), the notion that one can order an attack wing of B-52 bombers to blow up all ISIS forces in Raqqa and Mosul without harming any civilians is beyond mere stupidity. It has ascended into complete, total assclownery unbecoming of a United States Senator or any American citizen with a high school diploma.
- Ted Cruz thinking he can carpet-bomb ISIS with minimal loss of civilian life is like William Tell thinking he can shoot an apple off his son’s head with a truck bomb.
Getting back to the point, Trump didn’t just stop at saying “we should bomb the oil.” He said that we should have taken over Iraq’s oil supply in 2003 and kept the revenue for ourselves, and suggested that we should have done the same in Libya in 2011. His idea now is to make up for lost time by sending enough ground forces to take over the ISIS-controlled oil fields and set up oil rigs to guarantee that the United States can start drawing a profit from the War in Iraq. He assures us that if we had just followed his advice, we wouldn’t have ISIS to deal with, and we would make a lot of money from our invasion. That’s what “to the victor goes the spoils” means – a return to the wars of conquest in the name of money and resources.
UNFORTUNATELY, TAKING IRAQ’S OIL IS AN INCREDIBLY BAD IDEA.
Let’s break our Commander-in-Chief’s genius plan down a little bit, to see why it’s loaded with a bajillion legal, logistical, tactical, and strategic issues.
PROBLEM NO. 1: IT’S A WAR CRIME
Trump doesn’t really care about what the rules of war say, because he seems to view them as a hindrance more than anything else. In fact, until Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Trump that torture is a bad idea, he was espousing his love for waterboarding at every opportunity. Unfortunately, torture is clearly defined as a war crime, and we happen to be signatories to a UN treaty saying that it’s a war crime.
On that same note, there is no indication that Trump cares (or even that he knows) that his actions would be in violation of the text of one article of the United Nations Charter.
Article II (2) of the United Nations Charter:
Section 3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.
Section 4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
Given that the purpose of the United Nations is to prevent wars, particularly petty ones, we’re already in warm water. Considering that Trump’s aim with Middle Eastern wars is to invade, then “secure” it by taking over their oil supplies, one could very easily argue that such a war violates the purposes of the United Nations because we would be violating the sovereignty of another nation with a motivation to enrich ourselves. That in turn disrupts the international order of peace, security, and justice, because the entire world will have just witnessed the United States breaking Iraq’s kneecaps and running off with its wallet. If you want to get the United States in scalding hot water with every single nation on Earth, this is how.
PROBLEM NO. 2: IRAQ DID THE SAME THING TO KUWAIT, AND WE STARTED THE GULF WAR OVER IT
In August 1990, a murderous dictator named Saddam Hussein got pissed that Iraq wasn’t doing so hot (after all, Iraq had just lost to Iran in the aptly-named Iran-Iraq War) and decided to revitalize the national morale and his flagging economy by invading the small oil-rich nation of Kuwait. After only a few days of fighting, Kuwait was under Saddam’s control and Kuwait’s oil reserves fell into his hands.
Almost instantly, the rest of the world sprung into action. The President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, ordered the immediate imposition of economic sanctions and deployed US military forces to Saudi Arabia. Within weeks, a massive multi-national military coalition had assembled on Iraq’s doorstep, ready to deliver an ass-kicking of astronomical proportions. On 16 January 1991, coalition forces launched Operation: Desert Storm, and the rest is history.
The lesson that most people took from the Gulf War? Don’t invade nations if one of your goals is to take their stuff. Donald Trump seemed to have missed that lesson.
PROBLEM NO. 3: PEOPLE CAN GET PISSED IF YOU STEAL THEIR ECONOMY
Trump’s main justification for “taking the oil” is that the deprivation of oil wealth would have stopped ISIS from being able to pay its soldiers and administrators. Without a source of financial fuel, he claims, ISIS and similar terrorist organizations wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground.
Unsurprisingly, that’s wrong. This isn’t wrong from a liberal point of view, it’s wrong from a common sense point of view. According to data from 2014, the oil industry made up 60% of Iraq’s GDP and provided somewhere around 90% of the government’s revenues. Doing some back-of-the-napkin math, that indicates that out of a total GDP of 227 billion US dollars, around 136 billion dollars comes from oil. Despite this, Iraq is one of the world’s poorer countries, with a per-capita GDP of somewhere around $7,100 a head. Like many poor countries, Iraq has a problem with terrorism. Cut out 136 billion from 227 billion and Iraq becomes, like, twice as poor. Government revenue grinds to a halt, people stop working, and the utility infrastructure stops working.
Poor countries are susceptible to terrorism, insurgency, and civil unrest because its people are usually impoverished, sick, and generally unhappy. They often feel their government doesn’t put any effort into trying to protect or assist them. In fact, one of the main criticisms of our failed “nation-building” program in Iraq was that it did little to address widespread poverty and infrastructural collapse in the years after our invasion. As a result, the government lost authority in the eyes of its people, and pissed youngsters started signing up for radical insurgent groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. That was when we were trying to not actively destroy the Iraqi economy and retool it for our own needs. Imagine how bad it would be if we were siphoning off billions of barrels of oil for ourselves.
To put it another way, imagine what would happen if your government had collapsed and the United States Army was responsible for stealing the majority of your economy? How would you react if you were in a nation with a high proliferation of firearms and explosives? Returning to the perspective of us Americans, would you want to be an enlisted soldier patrolling in 120 degree heat with the creeping suspicion that everyone in the country hates you and your buddies for no fault of your own?
The easiest way to get an entire country to take up arms against an army is to destroy their way of life and occupy their homeland. ISIS may not have been able to secure the oil fields in the north of the country, but I guarantee that at least a dozen other terrorist organizations would have sprung up in their place, motivated by the complete and total collapse of the Iraqi economy, the government, and a bitter, burning hatred for an occupying force. To rephrase, we would be angering a nation of 34 million people for no good reason, creating an unnecessary security risk.
By the time we finally skip town, we would be leaving an impoverished war-torn country (again, this country happens to be filled with unlicensed guns and explosives) with zero oil/natural gas sector and no functioning government. Guess what’s going to spring up in its place? A gargantuan refugee crisis and a massive outpouring of terrorist activity. I’m no expert, but that doesn’t sound like a win to me.
PROBLEM NO. 4: THE OCCUPATION WOULD BE STUPIDLY EXPENSIVE, NOT TO MENTION HORRIFYINGLY DANGEROUS
Under Trump’s proposed “take the oil” plan, US forces would have had to remain on the ground indefinitely, guarding the oil rigs and pipelines from insurgents (which, by the way, would take a GINORMOUS amount of manpower). Setting aside the obvious fact that the President would be placing thousands of men and women in harm’s way for a mercenary-type cause, we would be conducting a gargantuan military operation. Oil is profitable, but it’s not cheap to run an oil infrastructure when you need north of two hundred thousand troops making sure that nobody tries to blow up the pipeline or take a potshot at some Lance Corporal trying to go about his day. To successfully run an occupying army with the aim of siphoning off their entire oil/natural gas sector, we would need to effectively pacify the nation of Iraq for as long as we desire.
Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t have an exit plan for his brilliant idea – the only specifics he’s given are “we’ll have Exxon and Chevron set it up” and “we’ll give some to the Iraqis but keep the rest for ourselves.” Of course, it’ll take decades to actually get a decent amount of oil out of the ground, and to fund that endeavor we’d need a MASSIVE train of military logistics keeping hundreds of thousands of troops fed and supplied in large, secure permanent bases. We would need a god-awful amount of resources just to secure the pipelines, rigs, and refineries as well, because that involves conducting house-to-house raids to eliminate potential terrorist plots as well as constant aerial surveillance.
Oh, yeah, and there’s the slight problem of the Iraqi military. In 2011, we left for two reasons: Firstly, we were sick and tired of hanging around in Iraq and figured Nouri al-Maliki could take things over from there (lol). Secondly, we were no longer welcome – the Status of Forces Agreement, which governed our presence and the hospitality of the Iraqi government, expired on 31 December 2011. Any continuing US military presence after that date would have been in violation of this treaty and we would become an illegal occupying force. I’m a fan of global American might, but I really don’t like sticking around in a country where the inhabitants and the government want us dead.
PROBLEM NO. 5: LOSS OF AMERICAN REPUTATION
This last problem isn’t new. While the United States found near-universal popularity after the understandable First Gulf War, we didn’t enjoy nearly as much luck the second time around. Our reputation as the world’s trusted policeman nearly collapsed, and trust in the ability of George W. Bush (who, outside of Iraq, had a pretty clear and understandable foreign policy doctrine) to lead the Free World eroded. Turns out, people get pretty unhappy when we invade countries with only a shaky legal basis. Our allies questioned our judgment, our enemies mocked us, and other potential “victims” worried if they were going to be ‘next’ in line to get mugged.
I will freely admit that we invaded the nation of Iraq with at least some good intentions (the exact amount is up to some debate, but I think we can all agree that President Bush was pretty sick of Saddam Hussein’s shenanigans, and so was the public, although that didn’t necessarily mean the public wanted to go to war over it). We tried our best to make something of a crappy invasion, and we weren’t actively/intentionally trying to destroy the entire nation of Iraq or its economy.
Trump’s off-the-top-of-his-head “take the oil” idea would have shot our international reputation in the face. Not only would the United States be known as the nation that accidentally invades countries without a solid casus belli, we would also be known as the nation that has no problem with shamelessly exploiting an entire economy to try (and fail) to cover the costs of the invasion. Our foreign policy doctrine would be tainted with the direct promise of oil money and the spoils of war, like a modern-day Roman Republic where leaders led military expeditions for cash and glory rather than good will and peace.
SO, WHAT’S THE TAKE-AWAY FROM ALL THIS?
Luckily, Trump’s “take the oil” idea is just that – an idea. It’s something he’s brought up before, and while it should have gotten him disqualified in the eyes of Republican primary voters, it’s not likely to progress now. Right now, Trump’s Secretary of Defense is an honorable man, a former USMC four-star-general named James Mattis. Mattis is an opponent of torture (because it doesn’t work), and he’s a capable commander who knows the risks involved in war. If Trump tries to bring this idea up in the Situation Room, Mattis and Chairman Joseph Dunford (another USMC general) are very likely to smack it down. For all of Trump’s brashness, he tends to listen to these people. For that, I am grateful.
This was a thought exercise in which I spent nearly 3000 words attempting to tear apart the argument of a man who is presently the single most powerful leader on Earth in command of the entire United States military. Unfortunately, this barely even scratches the surface of it. The role of Commander-in-Chief is one that takes a solemn attitude and a calm, nuanced approach to the manner in which our world operates. Trump may be doing some on-the-job learning, but the ideas he espoused during the campaign border on the ridiculous.
If you disagree with my take on foreign policy and the way in which our military should conduct itself abroad, I understand – your input is always welcome, especially if you believe “taking the oil” is a good idea.
After writing this article, I found an interesting source by the Washington Post about this very issue. Give it a read here.
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