Since announcing his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump has made clear that he’s a different kind of candidate. He’s loud, he’s brash, and he’s got an uncanny ability to spark outrage and controversy just by opening his mouth. His is a reality-show candidacy for a reality-show age, and his pitch to voters fits it to a tee: heavy on personality and light on policy. Those stances he does take have a superficial populist appeal — quite a substantial one if the polls are to be believed — but tend to fall apart on closer inspection.
Case in point: American policy in the Middle East, where Trump has in recent years repeatedly endorsed the bizarre, bellicose fantasy that the U.S. could and should seize oil fields in Iraq and Libya.
“So you would keep troops in Iraq after this year?” asked Wall Street Journal reporter Kelly Evans.
“I would take the oil,” Trump responded.
Trump has repeatedly endorsed the bizarre, bellicose fantasy that the U.S. could and should seize oil fields in Iraq and Libya.
A confused Evans responded, “I don’t understand how you would take — does that mean keeping troops there, or staying involved in Iraq?”
“You heard me, I would take the oil,” Trump insisted. “I would not leave Iraq and let Iran take the oil.”
About a week after his interview with Evans, Trump elaborated, suggesting that America’s losses in Iraq deserved compensation in the form of Iraqi oil. “In the old days, you know when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils,” he told George Stephanopoulos in 2011. “You go in. You win the war and you take it. . . . You’re not stealing anything. . . . We’re taking back $1.5 trillion to reimburse ourselves.”
A few days after his interview with Stephanopolous, he suggested that U.S. policy toward the uprising against Moammar Qaddafi in Libya should also focus on “taking the oil.”
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“I would go in and take the oil — I would just go in and take the oil,” Trump told Greta Van Susteren. “We don’t know who the rebels are, we hear they come from Iran, we hear they’re influenced by Iran or al-Qaeda, and, frankly I would go in, I would take the oil — and stop this baby stuff.” He would later say, “I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.”
At CPAC 2013, Trump said he’d been told that seizing the oil fields had been an original goal of the Bush administration, now mysteriously forgotten.
“When I heard that we were first going into Iraq, some very smart people told me ‘well, we’re actually going for the oil,’ and I said, ‘Alright, I get that, there’s nothing else, I get it. We didn’t take the oil! And when I said, we spent $1.5 trillion we should take it and pay ourselves back. What are we doing? What the hell are we thinking?”
Trump added that the U.S. government should use the seized $1.5 trillion to provide a million dollars to the family of every slain U.S. solder. “A million dollars to a family is nothing compared to the kind of wealth that you’re talking about over there.” The U.S. suffered 4,492 military fatalities in Iraq; that amounts to $4.5 billion under Trump’s plan.
To this day, Trump sees the oil fields as the fulcrum of power in the Middle East. After being prompted by Anderson Cooper to elaborate on his plan to deal with the terrorist group ISIS, Trump declared, “I would bomb the hell out of those oil fields. I wouldn’t send many troops because you won’t need them by the time I’m finished.”
The man who wrote The Art of the Deal offers Americans a vision of a world where national security policy is simple, with lots of benefits and little cost.
It’s not clear how Trump’s policy would differ from existing U.S. strategy, which managed to reduce ISIS’ ability to produce oil from 70,000 barrels a day to about 20,000 within one month. (Immobile, heavy-equipment dominated sites like oil derricks and refineries are perhaps the easiest bombing targets.)
Earlier this year, an international review of known information about ISIS’ finances concluded the group’s “earnings from oil-related trade have probably diminished in importance relative to other sources of revenue due to coalition airstrikes” as well as the group’s need for refined crude for its military operations and declining oil prices. The report added, “As a result of coalition airstrikes, ISIL has been forced to rely upon even more primitive refining techniques, including burning the crude in open pits that produce limited yields of poor-quality product.”In his “take the oil fields” comments over the years, Trump never quite elaborated on details like who would operate the drilling equipment and refineries in those foreign countries, and how the locals would respond to their national property and territory being seized. Nor does he worry about the Geneva Convention’s explicit ban on seizing property from an adversary.
The man who wrote The Art of the Deal offers Americans a vision of a world where national security policy is simple, with lots of benefits and little cost.When the Iraq War is going badly, the United States can declare victory and leave; if need be, we can go back in and “take the oil” later. It’s a soothing fiction, like the idea of getting the Mexican government to pay for a new border fence, or the idea that high oil prices can be solved by “look[ing OPEC] in the eye and say[ing], ‘Fellas, you’ve had your fun, the fun is over” or that the U.S. can stop China’s currency manipulation by “having a very, very strong talk with the president of China.”
A man who built a real estate empire on brinksmanship proposes a correction for voters who feel like foreign powers bully their country on a regular basis. The appeal is obvious, but so is the unlikelihood that Trump’s shifting, temperamental geopolitical approach would survive a collision with reality.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.