Trump’s Comments about Iraqi Oil are Dangerous
During his speech at CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration as president, Donald Trump exhibited an ignorance of modern Middle Eastern history and revealed how comments by a US president can feed dangerous conspiracy theories about the country’s intentions.
Trump told the audience of CIA professionals that the United States should have taken Iraqi oil when it invaded that country in 2003. He invoked the old expression, “To the victor, belong the spoils” and said he first argued for this case for “economic reasons”.
He added: “If we 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, but, OK, maybe you’ll have another chance.”
This is not the first time Trump has advocated such an economic grab and sounded like an early 20th century imperialist. He said the same thing at a so-called commander-in-chief forum in New York last September during the height of the US presidential campaign.
For Trump, everything is transactional. In his mind, if the United States spent lots on money in Iraq, it would be only natural to take the oil as part of the deal and maybe he was trying to play cute by saying “you’ll have another chance” to take Iraqi oil at some future date.
These comments reflect Trump’s deep ignorance of modern Middle Eastern history, especially how the exploitation of oil resources drove a good part of European imperialism in the region. The comments must have made the CIA analysts, who pride themselves on understanding a particular country or region’s history, politics and culture, cringe.
Prior to the nationalisation of oil companies in the Middle East, the lion’s share of the profits went to Western oil companies backed by Western governments. Anyone who has studied the modern histories of Iraq, Iran and the other Gulf countries knows this very well.
Iraqi oil was the monopoly of the Iraq Petroleum Company, formed in the late 1920s during the time of the British mandate and controlled by British, French, Dutch and American oil companies, while the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (today’s BP) was a British monopoly in Iran that was 51% owned by the British government.
Nationalists and communists in Iraq and Iran effectively used the issue of the exploitation of oil resources to stir up their populations against the West. The sentiment that the West was taking the oil was widely felt among the populace.
So, to harken back to this era and say that the United States should have made an economic grab to take Iraq’s oil is not only naive but politically foolish.
During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a widespread belief in the region that the US objective was to seize or control Iraq’s considerable oil resources. Although most scholars who have examined this period in depth have concluded that ideological factors — the desire to remake the Middle East — was the dominant one, the theory of oil exploitation as the real reason for the invasion lingers and is used by the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda as recruiting tools.
Having a US president essentially say that next time the United States will make sure it will “take the oil” feeds such conspiracy theories and paints the United States in a very bad light.
Incredibly, Trump’s team did not backtrack from these comments when given the opportunity. His spokesman, Sean Spicer, merely said that Trump “is committed to making sure that America, the American people, the American taxpayer see some benefit and ensure that our interests overseas are not just sending blank cheques”.
In other words, taking the oil from another country would be simply a business transaction for US intervention, without any consideration of the political fallout.
Moreover, Trump and Spicer did not mention the huge costs that would be involved in occupying a country such as Iraq again to take the oil.
Trump’s comments have elicited criticism even from Republican foreign policy specialists. John Negroponte, former US ambassador to Iraq and former director of
National Intelligence said president George W. Bush “almost bent over backward not to make a special effort to gain access for us to the oil resources”. Bush understood how sensitive the oil issue was.
Not surprisingly, former president Barack Obama’s spokesman at the Pentagon, who has left the government, said the Trump White House should “clearly say the US is not going to take Iraq’s oil. Every moment that statement stands puts our troops at greater risk.”
What really counts is how Trump’s comments are being perceived in Iraq and in the wider region. One middle-class Iraqi told the media that Trump’s comments “are totally wrong”, a sentiment that is undoubtedly shared by millions of his countrymen.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.
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