Every American, regardless of who they voted for in the election, should be furious with President Donald Trump for what he told the CIA during a recent meeting at its headquarters. I do not mean his digressions about the size of the crowd at his inauguration and the number of times he has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, although it does not inspire confidence to see the president waste fleeting time with national-security employees on his vanity rather than our security.
It’s his comments on Iraq that ought to make Americans apoplectic, for in the space of seconds, Trump managed to utter words that are 1) morally repugnant, 2) certain to be exploited as a recruiting tool by America’s terrorist enemies, and 3) likely to help foreign adversaries diminish America’s reputation and power. For the sake of an indisciplined, self-indulgent riff, Trump made Americans less safe.
Here are his words:
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 don’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in we got out wrong. And I always said in addition to that, ‘Keep the oil.’ Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if you kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil, okay? Maybe you’ll have another chance.
When Trump made statements like this as a private citizen they could be safely ignored. Now that he is president they have immediate, global consequences. They reached, for example, a 27-year-old Iraqi who is fighting ISIS. Here is how he responded: “I participated in the attack against the Americans by attacking them with mortars and roadside bombs, and I’m ready to do it again,” he told war correspondent Borzou Daragahi. “We kept our ammunition and weapons from the time the Americans left for fighting ISIS. But once ISIS is gone we will save our weapons for the Americans.” Is America well served by a president who needlessly evokes that reaction?
Trump’s remark that “maybe you’ll have another chance” to seize Iraq’s oil surely reached young Americans pondering whether to enlist or re-enlist in the armed forces. They understand what a dismayed Bruce Riedel explained about Trump’s words:
Trump never says what “taking the oil” of Iraq really means: an endless occupation army in the Persian Gulf surrounded by enemies, without allies, and isolated hopelessly from the Islamic world. It would have to be an open-ended occupation, which would polarize America more than ever. It would reinvigorate the global jihad, and it would disgrace our fundamental values as a nation.
In fact, as James S. Robbins noted at National Review in 2005, Al Qaeda was trying to figure out how to bait the United States into sending soldiers to Iraq’s oil fields. As a jihadist magazine put it, “The U.S. will reach a stage of madness after the targeting of its oil interests, which will facilitate the creation of a new front and the drowning of the U.S. in a new quagmire that will be worse than the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Trump’s statement ought to make conservatives and Republicans particularly uncomfortable. It isn’t so long ago that many of them regarded “No Blood For Oil” as a deluded leftist slogan at best and an anti-American slur at worst. “In our petroleum-paranoid world, ‘No Blood For Oil’ was the common smear against removing oil-rich Saddam Hussein,” Victor Davis Hanson declared in a 2006 essay.
Hanson is now a Trump supporter.
In 2011, Rush Limbaugh, another Trump supporter, mocked Hillary Clinton when she gave public assurances that the United States was not invading Libya to seize its oil.
He felt that went without saying.
“I thought with Obama all that stuff about the American people being evil and greedy and stealing all of the world’s resources, I thought that all was gonna come to a screeching halt? Obama’s been around apologizing for all that, I thought with Obama as head of the regime the world was gonna stop thinking about us this way,” Limbaugh said. “But yet we’ve got the wacko websites like MoveOn.org and who the heck knows whoever else claiming that we’re going into Libya for the oil, and so Mrs. Clinton, (paraphrasing) ‘We don’t want these people to be right.’ (interruption) Well, I know, the Marines were in Tripoli and left. Is it reassuring, ladies and gentlemen, to know that our country’s foreign policy is in the hands of people who post comments at the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post? Because that’s essentially what’s happening. The lunatics that populate those websites, it’s their policies, their beliefs that are running American foreign policy. I mean that’s where you hear this claptrap about stealing the world’s oil. I guess that’s so much better than having foreign policy decisions made by some arrogant cowboy like George W. Bush.”
In fact, back in 2011, it wasn’t just “lunatics” at the Huffington Post or Daily Kos talking about America’s interest in Libyan oil. Trump was openly urging the Obama Administration to take Libya’s oil! Most Trump supporters I interviewed during the campaign, having heard him rail against the Iraq War, were totally unaware that he even made a YouTube video urging the Obama administration to send U.S. troops to Libya:
As I reported back in September, there have been many times over the years when Trump was more hawkish and interventionist than the Washington, D.C. establishment.
But urging a humanitarian intervention in Libya, as foolish as ensuing events made that seem, isn’t nearly so depraved and strategically bankrupt as urging the American military to steal foreign oil by force. Politifact conveyed this well last year:
...the United States does not have enough troops to protect all of Iraq’s oil fields from ISIS militants, let alone securing transportation routes and pipelines for export. "It would take a permanent, massive presence to protect a static target from the tanks and heavy weaponry of an enemy with all the time in the world," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said.
Military historian Lance Janda foresaw even more trouble: "It would draw endless numbers of enemies to attack us in the Middle East and draw us into a long-term ground war, which is precisely what Trump has said he wants to avoid.”
These weren’t outlying critics. They represented a near-consensus:
When we floated Trump’s idea with a half-dozen foreign policy experts, we encountered wider and deeper revulsion than just about any topic we’ve ever asked about. “I wish I could tell you all the ways it would be illegal and not kosher,” said Steven R. Ratner, a University of Michigan law professor.
Trump’s idea is "so out of step with any plausible interpretation of U.S. history or international law that they should be dismissed out of hand by anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of world affairs," said Janda. "Insofar as Mr. Trump's proposals are coherent enough to be subject to analysis and judgment, they appear to be practically impossible, legally prohibited, and politically imbecilic," said Barnett Rubin, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
This is the idea that Trump chose to raise in a televised address to the CIA, the part of the U.S. government that inspires the most distrust and paranoia around the world. He could’ve talked about anything under the sun, and he chose to return to his inane, ignorant hobbyhorse about how we should steal Iraq’s oil—an agenda he perhaps doesn’t even intend to pursue, in which case America took the security and P.R. hit for naught.
Can Trump get it together to govern with even a modicum of competence?
So far this is what amateur hour looks like when it is voted into the White House on the strength of celebrity, bluster, and an opponent with decades of poor decisions and corruption as baggage.
Trump doesn’t appear to recognize his needless, totally avoidable error. America would benefit if the people around him demanded more discipline and told their erratic boss to stop shooting off his mouth. Its safety hangs in the balance.