“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…we should have kept the oil.”
Those were President Trump’s comments at the CIA the day after his inauguration in January. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that the U.S. should have “taken Iraq’s oil,” an argument that he revisited as recently as last week. “We’ve spent $6 trillion…in the Middle East,” President Trump said during a meeting with airline executives at the White House on February 9. “We’ve got nothing. We’ve got nothing. We never even kept a small, even a tiny oil well. Not one little oil well. I said, ‘Keep the oil.’”
The notion that the U.S. military should have taken Iraq’s oil, it should be said at the outset, is flatly illegal. "What Trump seems to be advocating here would be a fundamental violation of international law embodied in numerous international agreements and in recognized principles of customary international law," Anthony Clark Arend, a Georgetown University professor of government and foreign service, told PolitiFact last year.
It would also stretch the imagination to envision how such a strategy would play out in reality. Iraq’s oil sector is made up of a mix of state-owned interests and private ones. Most of the investment going into Iraq’s enormous southern oil fields come from international companies, such as BP, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, CNPC and Lukoil. Kurdish oil fields in the north are also run mostly by international companies. It is not clear what “taking” the oil really looks like.
“I’ve always thought that was beyond stupid. In other words, I don’t even know what it means,” John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director of the CIA under the Clinton and Bush administrations, told the New Yorker Radio Hour last week. “Try and operationalize that. Does that mean sending troops to surround oil wells while you pump it out, then transport it out of the country? Or does it mean something else? I have no idea what he’s talking about. So I assume it won’t happen. So I’m not worried about it.”
On top of that, “taking” Iraq’s oil, however that played out, would be a political nightmare. While some might dismiss the comments as just talk, even the suggestion of taking Iraq’s oil is already having a negative effect. The comments, combined with the travel ban that the Trump administration ordered on seven majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, has sparked a backlash against the U.S. in Iraq.
The Iraqi public and Iraqi members of parliament are pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to scale back its cooperation with the U.S. government and military, which could jeopardize the long-term presence of American troops in Iraq. This is potentially an enormous and underreported development given that it is a top priority of the U.S. government to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In fact, U.S. troops have been cooperating with Iraqi forces for months on a major campaign to retake Mosul, a mission that is set to ramp up again in the near future to take the western portion of the city.
"Trump embarrassed al-Abadi," Saad al-Mutalabi, a lawmaker and ally of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told the AP. "There will be a general consensus that Americans should not stay in Iraq after Mosul, after the statements and the executive order from Trump," he said. "We believed that we had a strategic agreement with the U.S."
A narrowing of the U.S. presence in Iraq would serve to benefit Iran, dealing another blow to the Trump administration. And speaking of Iran, Shiite militias inside Iraq told the AP that they would target U.S. interests if the U.S. went after Iran, their benefactor.
President Trump’s reckless comments about “taking Iraq’s oil,” in other words, are undermining multiple U.S. strategic goals all at once. In the minds of a lot of Iraqis, they also confirm the worst: that the 2003 U.S. invasion was all about access to Iraq’s oil, something top American officials have always denied.
The stakes are high, with Iraq fighting a war against ISIS while trying to revive its oil sector. Oil revenues account for 93 percent of Iraq’s revenue, and the country is struggling under the weight of an expensive war and low oil prices. Iraq needs its oil to rebuild, and any effort to squeeze the government by the U.S. would be counterproductive to Iraq’s well-being, to say the least. President Trump’s “shoot from the hip” style has earned him some degree of domestic support, but he is in the process of needlessly burning bridges with some of the countries that he will need the most.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
More Top Reads From Oilprice.com: