Before Donald Trump took office, foreign governments excused his heedless foreign policy rhetoric in hopes he would become more responsible in the White House.
Hope gone. Trump’s belligerent insistence that Mexico pay for a wall, which provoked public outrage and government denials south of the border, forced Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel a crucial visit to Washington. Trump’s economic and military threats toward China risk provoking an armed confrontation with Beijing.
But nothing better illustrates the dangers to U.S. interests and security posed by the president’s careless rhetoric than his continued repetition of his longtime mantra: We should “take” Iraq’s oil.
If Americans had seized Iraqi oil after the 2003 invasion “you wouldn’t have ISIS,” insists Trump, claiming jihadists wouldn’t have been able to finance their caliphate. (Never mind nearly all Iraqi oil lies outside the area seized by ISIS or that ISIS funding comes from many other sources).
“So we should have kept the oil,” the president told a CIA audience last week, “but OK. Maybe we'll have another chance.” In other words, Trump still hopes to get his hands on Iraq’s oil riches.
Such talk will not only undercut the battle against ISIS at a critical moment, it will endanger the lives of U.S. troops.
“There is nothing Trump could have said that would be more corrosive to our interests in the Middle East,” says Ryan Crocker, the distinguished former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. And nothing that so displays the president’s ignorance of Middle East history and dynamics.
“This talk of seizing oil is a clarion call to anti-U.S. forces,” Crocker told me, “because it plays to the myth that we were in Iraq to take their oil. Oil is the sacred touchstone of Iraqi sovereignty and independence. From 2003 all the way to Donald Trump we made clear that we understood that.
“Now Iraqis will believe that seizing oil is U.S. policy. Trump has made the myth come true.”
In 2003, I got a similar message from Philip Carroll, a onetime U.S. CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, who served as top U.S. adviser to the Iraqi oil sector. He stressed the importance of leaving all decisions on oil to a sovereign Iraqi government. This key tenet of international law is of critical importance to U.S. oil companies seeking contracts in Iraq and the region.
Carroll also said respect for Arab sovereignty over oil was vital for Mideast stability. After all, the United States went to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991 because he violated international law by invading Kuwait to seize that country’s oil fields.
In his ABC interview, Trump sneered at critics who cite international law, demanding, “Who are the critics who say that? I call them fools.” Does Trump really want to imitate Saddam Hussein?
But there are other crucial reasons why the idea of seizing Iraqi oil fields is delusional. Arab governments still remember European colonial efforts to seize the region’s oil nearly a century ago. State-owned oil assets are the crown jewels in many Arab countries.
For President Trump to raise the specter of colonialism, with America as the aggressor, will alienate our Arab allies in the fight against ISIS. To do so when U.S. troop are fighting alongside Iraqi soldiers in the battle for Mosul is irresponsible. It can inspire Iraqi violence against American soldiers.
“If I were a U.S. field commander in Iraq I’d pull my troops back to barracks,” Crocker said, clearly furious that the president would needlessly put U.S. soldiers’ lives at risk. If such an attack occurs, he said, “Donald Trump will be to blame.”
All the more so since Trump has just insulted Baghdad and Iraqis by including Iraq among a list of predominantly Muslim countries whose citizens will be temporarily banned from obtaining U.S. visas, although the country is supposed to be our ally.
Americans may not realize that the new president’s rhetoric is trumpeted around the Mideast, on TV and social media. Iranian-backed militias and Sunni Islamists will amplify Trump’s threat to Iraqi oil. Iran’s ayatollahs must be chuckling, as President Trump provides them with quotable “evidence” of America’s evil intent.
In the past week, the president has spoken of possibly reinstating waterboarding, saying “it works.” He wants to slash U.N. funding, along with refugee visas for those fleeing ISIS.
Torture, oil, visas, refugees – all these presidential proposals will only inspire new jhihadis, whether in Europe, America, or elsewhere. “Trump has become the recruiter in chief for ISIS,” says Crocker.
It all makes one wonder who on earth, if anyone, is briefing President Trump.
It can’t be Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson; as an oilman he would have warned Trump off of his delusions. It can’t be Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is much too smart. If it is White House advisers Steve Bannon and/or Michael Flynn, we should all be very afraid.
Or perhaps these ideas all come from Trump, who refuses intelligence briefings and brags he knows everything he needs to know. Let’s hope Mattis or sane GOP senators can persuade him he needs more input.
Otherwise the country should brace for foreign policy disasters – caused by the same heedlessness with which the president calls for the seizure of Iraq’s oil.
Reach Trudy Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org.