On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump delivered one of his most extended and substantive speeches yet on the subject of foreign policy and national security. In it, he offered a variety of proposals. Some, like coalition-building and cyber security, were fairly old hat, if not decidedly redundant. Others, like the establishment of a Commission on Radical Islam and “extreme vetting” to screen would-be terrorists seeking to enter the country, were alarmingly creative, if not necessarily authorized under the Constitution.
As is very often the case on the stump these days, Trump made several mentions of the attacks on September 11, which took place 15 years ago next month. Without question, the attacks of that day had a profoundly destructive effect on the United States, but less discussed is the fact that they had a remarkably constructive effect, too: September 11 has given rise to a multitude of narratives—about the event, about the country that withstood it, about the character of its people. The practical effect of a useful narrative on foreign policy can’t be overstated (just ask the Bush and Obama administrations), and Trump is a master storyteller, insofar as he is a compelling narrator (if not necessarily a truthful one), and is adept at creating villains and heroes, to the delight of large audiences across the country. Yesterday he, too, established another narrative about September 11, this one to showcase his wisdom, instincts and fiscal savoir-faire.
To begin with, Trump declared:
I was an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning—a major difference between me and my opponent. Though I was a private citizen, whose personal opinions on such matters was not sought, I nonetheless publicly expressed my private doubts about the invasion.
By way of proof, Trump cited an interview with FOX’s Neil Cavuto, conducted several months before the invasion, and about which he recalled saying the following lines: “Perhaps [we] shouldn’t be doing it yet,” and “the economy is a much bigger problem.”
Over on the internet, Trump’s contention that he was publicly against the invasion was met with immediate derision. Among the sources cited to the contrary was Politifact, which as recently as June 22nd rated Trump’s campaign statements about his opposition to the war as “false,” and concluded:
We searched newspaper articles and television transcripts from 2002 and 2003 amid the debate leading up to the Iraq War. We didn’t find any examples of Trump unequivocally denouncing the war until a year after the war began.
The site did, however, link to a 2002 interview with Howard Stern, in which Trump was asked whether he supported the looming invasion and responded “Yeah, I guess so.” Surprising exactly no one, Trump did not mention this interview in his speech on Monday.
Buzzfeed, meanwhile, had already posted much of the same Neil Cavuto interview—giving Trump’s quote some context. When read fully, his position on the Iraq invasion circa 2001 seems less averse and more ambivalent, if not plainly disinterested:
Well, I’m starting to think that people are much more focused now on the economy. They are getting a little bit tired of hearing, We’re going in, we’re not going in, the—you know, whatever happened to the days of Douglas MacArthur? He would go and attack. He wouldn’t talk. We have to —you know, it’s sort like either do it, or don’t do it.
As far as the cautionary foresight that Trump had been touting?
This is his full quote from the Cavuto interview:
Well, [the president] has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps, because perhaps shouldn’t be doing it yet, and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations, you know. He’s under a lot of pressure. He’s—I think he’s doing a very good job.
“Do it or don’t do it,” is not the same thing as “don’t do it.” And, “I think the president is doing a very good job,” is not the same thing as “the president is taking the country to war and I believe it is wrong.”
Apparently impervious to this reality, Trump continued onwards in his storytelling about the events surrounding September 11, listing the many ways in which he had been righter, and wiser, than those in power. If the Iraq invasion had been a mistake, then its aftermath had been a gross miscalculation of epic proportions.
I have long said that we should have kept the oil in Iraq—another area where my judgment has been proven correct … I was saying this constantly and to whoever would listen: Keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil, I said—don’t let someone else get it. If they had listened to me then, we would have had the economic benefits of the oil, which I wanted to use to help take care of the wounded soldiers and families of those who died—and thousands of lives would have been saved.
At this moment, Trump was in his element. “Keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil” he intoned, pleadingly, as if this was the last shred of economic acumen left in the world. It seemed so simple, after all. Why didn’t we just keep the oil, as Trump had advised?
In 2013, the New York Times reported that post-Saddam Hussein Iraq had finally opened up the country’s oilfields to the international market—but it was the Chinese, and not the Americans, who cornered the market:
Chinese state-owned companies seized the opportunity, pouring more than $2 billion a year and hundreds of workers into Iraq, and just as important, showing a willingness to play by the new Iraqi government’s rules and to accept lower profits to win contracts.
Given Trump’s popular suggestion that America and its workers have been “humiliated” by the rest of the world, this last sentence strikes particular resonance. The Times explained how China won access to the oilfields:
Notably, what the Chinese are not doing is complaining. Unlike the executives of Western oil giants like Exxon Mobil, the Chinese happily accept the strict terms of Iraq’s oil contracts, which yield only minimal profits. China is more interested in energy to fuel its economy than profits to enrich its oil giants.
One can only imagine the myriad humiliations—meager profits, deteriorating safety conditions—American workers would have had to abide by to keep the oil. “Not complaining” and “happily accepting” the strict terms set by foreign governments are not exactly stratagems from Trump’s anti-humiliation playbook.
That said, Trump’s argument about what America did wrong in not “keeping the oil” also pointed to ISIS. Had America kept its troops in the country to safeguard these petroleum reserves, he contended, ISIS would have faltered in its inception:
According to CNN, ISIS made as much $500 million in oil sales in 2014 alone, fueling and funding its reign of terror. If we had controlled the oil, we could have prevented the rise of ISIS in Iraq—both by cutting off a major source of funding, and through the presence of U.S. forces necessary to safeguard the oil and other vital infrastructure.
About ISIS funding, Trump would seem to be correct: Oil has played a significant role in supporting its bloody incursions. But what of the American troops he suggested—to keep Iraq’s oil for America? Advocating for U.S. forces in Iraq to “safeguard the oil and other vital infrastructure” doesn’t sound like the same candidate who has championed a strain of geopolitical isolationism that puts “America First.” Nevermind the public appetite (both then and now) for more soldiers in the Middle East.
All of these practical realities were nuisances, as it concerned Trump’s story about post-9/11 America, a series of anecdotes meant to convey his well-honed instincts and hawk-eyed vision, in contrast to other people’s idiocy. And anyway, “I told you so” is almost always a more attractive narrative, having the benefit of being both promotional and humiliating. It is also, conveniently, difficult to prove, because it is fundamentally rooted in the past. And the past is very often hard to conjure. (Perhaps this explains how Rudy Giuliani, who was New York City’s mayor on 9/11, asserted just before Trump spoke that “before Obama came along, we didn't have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the U.S.”)
Depending on how old you are in 2016, the events surrounding September 11, 2001, can seem either very recent or very far away. Trump seems to be hoping for the latter, and that he can use the dimness of this past to his advantage in the present.