Donald Trump Thinks America Was Too Nice to Iraq

The Republican nominee says the U.S. needs to be tougher—on its enemies, immigrants, and the nations it invades.

Gerald Herbert / AP

If Donald Trump had been president 13 years ago, he insists now, the United States would never have invaded Iraq. But if he had launched the war—and mind you, he would not have, even though he supported it at the time—the U.S. would have lost a lot less blood and won a lot more treasure.

“We should have kept the oil,” Trump said during the middle of a 48-minute speech on radical Islam and national security that he delivered Monday afternoon in Youngstown, Ohio.

This might seem like a minor aside coming from Trump, a provocative little I-told-you-so from a man who loves to tell you so. The fateful Iraq decision happened so long ago now: Why would the Republican nominee want to muddle a key distinction between himself and Hillary Clinton that, at least according to his revisionist history, works in his favor? But Trump’s point about the oil was an important one—so much so that he repeated it three more times. “I was saying this constantly and consistently to whoever would listen. I said: Keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil,” Trump recalled. “Don’t let someone else get it.”

Had the U.S. controlled Iraqi petroleum reserves, Trump argued, the Islamic State would not have been able to seize them years later and sell them to fund its terror operations and expansion in the region. Moreover, he said, the U.S. could have used the proceeds from selling oil to care for wounded troops; if the military had been managing the oil fields it seized in Iraq, it could have prevented the destabilization of the region and the rise of ISIS that followed the troop withdrawal on President Obama’s watch, he went on.“In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils,” Trump said. “Instead, all we got from Iraq—and our adventures in the Middle East—was death, destruction and tremendous financial loss.”

Never mind for a moment the preposterousness of Trump’s claim, which ignores both the Geneva Convention and the historical fact that the Bush administration had a hard enough time selling a war that they assured the public and their Middle Eastern allies was not about oil.

Trump’s obsession with taking Iraq’s oil encapsulates the broader vision of national security that he laid out on Monday. America, he argued repeatedly, has been too nice—to its enemies, immigrants, and the nations it invades. Where most U.S. politicians use words like “extreme” and “vicious” to criticize their opponents, Trump embraced them as tools. “We will be tough, and we will even be extreme,” he said in describing the “ideological screening test” he would force potential immigrants to pass. “I call it extreme vetting.”

As for the support networks that would-be terrorists turn to in the United States, Trump vowed that they would be “stripped out and removed one by one—viciously if necessary.” He did not specify how. He suggested that immigrant assimilation would be a national priority, part of a larger “ideological war” against radical Islam. “Assimilation is not an act of hostility, but an expression of compassion,” Trump said.

Trump’s foreign-policy vision has been inconsistent and, at times, incoherent. He has revised his policy on Muslim immigration several times since December. On Monday, he did not once utter the isolationist slogan “America First” that he debuted during his last major address on the topic in April. Nor did he repeat his bizarre claim from last week that President Obama is “the founder of ISIS.” Instead, he reverted to the spin that aligns closest with the more nuanced critique that establishment Republicans have made about the president: “The rise of ISIS,” Trump said, “is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary Clinton.”

Yet the through line of Trump’s domestic and foreign policy has always been the projection of brute strength. No more political correctness. No more Mr. Nice Country. The U.S. should never have gone into Iraq, but once it got in, it shouldn’t have left. The U.S. is done with “nation-building,” Trump insisted on Monday. But when he is president, the country will destroy ISIS and decimate al-Qaeda.

How will he do this? Don’t ask. “Unlike Hillary Clinton,” he said, “my administration will not telegraph exact military plans to the enemy.” Whatever those plans are, however, you better believe he won’t be leaving without that oil.