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Trump Wants to Steal Middle East Oil, and He’s Not Alone
“Take the oil” isn’t just an applause line — it’s a policy that has been discussed in Washington for decades.
“I’ve always said,” Donald Trump told Matt Lauer at the Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7, “take the oil.” It was a rare instance of Trump not exaggerating. Seizing Middle Eastern oil has always been one of Trump’s favorite foreign-policy refrains. In addition to the Sept. 7 forum, he voiced virtually the same words during the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, at a foreign-policy speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on Aug. 15, and in numerous campaign rallies during the spring and summer. And the pattern stretches back long before the presidential campaign.
Every time Trump utters the phrase today, his wording is essentially the same: While occupying Iraq, we should have seized its oil. This, of course, does not yet amount to a coherent foreign policy. But Trump’s nomination by the Republican Party obliges the American public to try to understand it as one — and to acknowledge that Trump is not the first prominent figure to propose the violent seizure, by U.S. military forces, of Middle Eastern oil fields. Reckless though the policy is, previous administrations have tiptoed to the precipice of pursuing it.
Trump has offered several justifications for seizing Middle Eastern oil. In the debate on Sept. 26, he claimed that doing so in Iraq before the final U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 would have prevented the formation of the Islamic State, as that oil “was their primary source of income.” (This neglects that the Islamic State controls only Iraq’s northern oil fields, while U.S. forces were largely clustered around its southern fields.) More often, however, Trump’s intent has been predatory: to confiscate Iraqi oil as a legitimate reward for defeating Saddam Hussein and occupying the country. “In the old days, you know when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils,” he told George Stephanopoulos in 2011, referring to Iraqi oil. “You go in. You win the war, and you take it.”
Nor is Iraq the only Arab country that Trump has viewed as a possible target for American oil predation. In 2011, when the Arab Spring was underway and a rebellion against Muammar al-Qaddafi had just erupted in Libya, he brazenly spoke of stealing that country’s oil. “I would just go in and take the oil,” he told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News.
Talk of such action was once fairly widespread among Republican hawks in Washington, and Trump could have acquired the notion from any number of former generals and armchair strategists. The earliest discussions of a U.S. move to seize Arab oil arouse in the early 1970s, when Saudi Arabia and the other Middle Eastern oil producers nationalized fields once owned by major American oil companies and established OPEC to assert greater control over the pricing of their exports. That came to a head in late 1973 and early 1974, when Arab countries imposed an embargo on deliveries to the United States (in retaliation for American arms shipments to Israel during the Yom Kippur War) and OPEC announced a fourfold increase in oil prices — the two combining to cause a severe U.S. energy shortage and subsequent recession. In response to these perceived assaults, assorted American pundits and politicians called for military moves of one sort or another to address the problem.
Of the various expressions of this outlook, the one receiving the widest attention was an article in the March 1975 issue of Harper’s titled “Seizing Arab Oil,” written by the pseudonymous Miles Ignotus (Latin for “lone soldier”). Asserting that America’s timid response to the embargo and price increases was equivalent to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, “Ignotus” (identified as a Washington-based policy analyst) argued that the only way “to break OPEC” was to invade and occupy Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and bring in foreign companies to resume production. The goal, he claimed, would be “to occupy large and concentrated oil reserves, which can be produced rapidly in order to end the artificial scarcity of oil and thus cut the price.”
The Harper’s piece produced a storm of controversy, not the least of it over the identity of its author. Many observers saw the hand (or at least the influence) of Henry Kissinger, then national security advisor in the Gerald Ford White House and a reviled figure on the left; other names were also bandied about, without any being anointed the true figure. Even more spirited, however, was the debate over the feasibility of such a move.
“Ignotus” had claimed that the takeover of Saudi oil fields could be accomplished with some 40,000 U.S. troops, plus supporting air and naval power. Moscow might be tempted to impede such an operation, he acknowledged, but the USSR was lacking in the long-range forces needed to accomplish this, and, in any case would be deterred from picking a fight with Uncle Sam that might go nuclear. Other analysts, however, were not so sanguine. A study during the summer of 1975 conducted by military experts at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress concluded that such an operation would require far more troops than envisioned by “Ignotus,” and would result in widespread damage to the oil fields themselves — erasing any economic benefit from the invasion. Given the high risk of flight or sabotage by native workers, moreover, the report suggested that “drafting U.S. civilian workers to supplant foreign counterparts might be mandatory.” Circulation of the CRS report is widely credited with cooling the ardor of many in Washington who were once prepared to consider the seizure of Saudi Arabian oil fields, and the notion never received support from U.S. officials.
After the mid-1970s, the notion of “seizing Arab oil” largely disappeared from official discourse, but not the concept of using military force to ensure U.S. access to Middle Eastern supply zones. When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and Islamic clerics overthrew the shah of Iran — until then Washington’s closest ally in the Persian Gulf — President Jimmy Carter pledged to use “any means necessary, including military force,” to overcome any threat to the safe flow of Middle Eastern oil (a policy since known as the “Carter Doctrine”). And when Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990, President George H.W. Bush authorized the use of force to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia and blocking its oil exports. “Our country now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its independence,” he declared in a nationally televised address on Aug. 8. Hence, “the sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States.”
Then a curious thing happened: Much of the American public rebelled against the prospect of a war fought for the explicit purpose of controlling oil supplies. “No blood for oil” was the slogan widely voiced at peace demonstrations throughout the fall of 1990, and it soon found its way into the rhetoric of anti-war Democrats in Congress. By December, Bush stopped identifying oil as a justification for intervention in the Gulf and instead devoted all his ire to Iraqi human rights atrocities in Kuwait and Baghdad’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
George H.W. Bush’s sensitivity to the American public’s distaste for a war fought over purely pecuniary considerations — as distinct from more lofty aims, such as ridding the world of tyrants with WMD — was inherited by his son George W. Bush, who eschewed all talk of oil when rallying support for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Once again, it was concern over WMD that led the way, along with moral dismay over Saddam’s authoritarian excesses.
Despite this façade of altruism, there were those in the Bush administration who believed that American control over the oil industry should be used for more instrumental purposes: to privatize the state-owned Iraq National Oil Co. (INOC) and divvy up its assets among Western, primarily American companies. The Iraqi company claimed ownership of some of the largest and most prolific oil fields in the world, and the top U.S. companies were eager to acquire a stake in them. The breakup of Iraq’s large state-owned firms was also a goal of the conservative economists who populated the Bush administration. In deference to these views, the Oil and Gas Working Group established by the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project began to plan for the eventual privatization of the INOC.
When U.S. troops first occupied Baghdad, in April 2003, it seemed that the privatization drive was still firmly entrenched on Washington’s agenda. Paul Bremer, Bush’s choice as head of the occupation authority, placed control of the petroleum industry under an American oil company executive, Philip J. Carroll, with the intention of diluting state control. However, as opposition to the U.S. occupation mushroomed, ensuring the loyalty of Iraq’s highly nationalistic oil workers proved more vital than privatizing state assets, and so the plan of doling out the INOC’s assets to American companies fell by the wayside.
When Trump says “we should have taken the oil,” he is basically referring to that hallucinatory moment in the spring of 2003 when U.S. power appeared unbounded and Washington still called the shots. In those heady days, the notion of appropriating Iraq’s most valuable national assets and handing them over to American companies must have looked like a relatively straightforward transaction: Send some occupation functionaries to the oil fields and refineries, tell the nationalistic and well-organized oil workers that they were being replaced by American personnel, and deploy a few Marines to deal with any resulting unpleasantness.
Of course, we now know what happened when Bremer told Saddam’s bureaucrats and soldiers that they were no longer needed — an insurgency broke out that has never been completely stilled. It is safe to assume that any attempt to treat Iraqi oil workers in the same manner would have led to resistance, sabotage, and the dissolution of the oil industry. Any move by American companies to operate in Iraqi fields under those circumstances would have required a permanent U.S. military protective force and would have placed the American workers stationed there under extreme risk of kidnapping and murder. There would have been no easy “taking of the oil.”
Although some in the Bush-Cheney entourage seem to have believed the spoils outweighed the risks, those in command quickly determined that the success of the U.S. mission in Iraq — and the safety of American personnel — allowed for nothing of the sort. Any homegrown government that might replace Saddam’s broken regime under U.S. tutelage would insist on state ownership of the oil fields, and no other plausible alternative presented itself. In addition, Bush surely understood that any move to appropriate Iraqi oil would make a mockery of his oft-professed claims to have invaded Iraq for purely altruistic reasons, turning the American public against him.
It is abundantly clear, then, that there never was a time when the United States could have “taken the oil.” Even at the peak of American power, in the spring and summer of 2003, such a move would have led to disaster; to think it could have been accomplished at a later date, as Trump asserts, is sheer madness. Consider his greatest folly: the claim that Bush, in his last months in office, or President Barack Obama, in his first, should have left a residual force in Iraq to guard the oil fields (presumably under U.S. control) as America’s main combat units began their withdrawal. This would have ignited rebellion from every faction of Iraqi society, requiring not only a halt in the troop withdrawal but also a second “surge” of American forces on an even grander scale than the first. Whether or not the Islamic State would have arisen under these circumstances is difficult to determine, but there is no doubt we would have seen the emergence of many other insurgent groups, equally deadly.
Trump will, no doubt, speak of “taking the oil” again. This is, as we have seen, an idea with deep roots in elite policymaking circles. But it has been rejected time and again by those who have had to consider its political and military implications and saw nothing but disaster. As is true of so much else uttered by Trump on foreign affairs, it exposes a total ignorance of reality and a callous disregard for the lives of the soldiers, sailors, and pilots who would be sent to do his reckless bidding. What it doesn’t do, however, is expose ignorance of the recent history of U.S. foreign policy.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images