Donald Trump says he wants to end long U.S. military entanglements. But he has also repeatedly said the U.S. should have seized Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion — an undertaking that would have been illegal, required decades of occupation by hundreds of thousands of troops, increased the risk of casualties and probably cost more than the oil itself was worth.
“It’s just plain nonsense,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior government official for decades who has traveled extensively in Iraq and written on Middle East security and energy. “There’s no question whatsoever that if you had bothered to spend even a minute or two, you would realize how impractical this is.”
Trump has made the statement several times, most prominently on Wednesday during a prime-time nationally televised military forum in New York.
“It used to be, ‘To the victor belong the spoils,” Trump said. “Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.”
Trump said that it would have required leaving only “a certain group behind” to pump Iraq’s oil and that doing so would have prevented the rise of Islamic State. Trump has often said he would use the money to compensate U.S. military families for their sacrifices.
On all counts, experts say, he is wrong.
Start with the premise that defeated countries should have their resources taken.
“‘Antiquated’ is a nice way to put it,” said Douglas J. Feith, a top defense official for George W. Bush during the invasion. “‘Barbaric’ would be more apt.”
“It basically aligns him with the views of Stalin after World War II,” he added. “The Soviets after World War II went into Germany and dismantled every piece of equipment that they could find and stripped the country down.”
In the 20th century, Western allies determined that leaving war-torn nations hobbled and humiliated – as happened after World War I – was a sure way to create hostility, instability and more warfare. After World War II, allied countries instead helped rebuild Japan, Germany and other Western European nations in a successful effort to stabilize the region, buffer the Soviet threat and strengthen the world economy.
After failing to locate the weapons of mass destruction that were the initial U.S. justification for the invasion, taking Iraq’s resources would have only confirmed the view of many Iraqis that the war was mainly about oil.
It also would have violated decades of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, as well as the United Nations mandate that authorized the invasion.
Iraq's economy is nearly entirely reliant on oil. Any sway in the price per barrel sends shudders through the country because oil accounts for 95% of all government revenues. Oil remains the lifeblood for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s fragile government’s efforts to provide basic services to citizens and maintain the nation’s aging infrastructure.
Recognizing the importance of oil to Iraq’s security and finances, the U.S. played a critical role in ensuring an oil exports and revenue-sharing deal signed this year between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, the autonomous ruling body of Iraq’s north.
Taking oil after the invasion would not only have devastated the Iraqi people, it would likely have increased the size of the insurgency that fought against the U.S. military – feeding on beliefs that Americans were there as modern-day crusaders – and undermined U.S. efforts to build allies throughout the Middle East.
“Every country in the region would have opposed us,” Kori Schake, a top defense and security advisor to Bush, said in an email. ”And it would have made governments the world over suspicious of U.S. involvement.”
One of the greatest problems during the postwar occupation was the alienation of large numbers of Sunni Muslims and members of the Iraqi military after the U.S. insisted on eliminating all members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party from government positions, Cordesman noted. Taking oil would have eliminated whatever goodwill remained.
Even putting aside those complications, the practical implications of taking oil are just as daunting.
Because the reserves are in the ground, they would need to be pumped and transported, a decades-long effort that would require a significant U.S. force, perhaps hundreds of thousands of troops, and tens of billions of dollars, likely more than the oil is worth, military analysts say. All of those troops would be potential targets for insurgents, who would have greater justification in pointing to the U.S. military as enemies of the Iraqi people.
Assuming that would have prevented the rise of Islamic State, as Trump has, misreads the group’s history as a spinoff of Al Qaeda resulting from an internal power struggle between 2011 and 2013, Cordesman said.
The U.S. military has, however, recognized that oil production is a revenue generator for Islamic State, which at one point was estimated to take in about $2 million a day. Starting last fall, the U.S. military stepped up attacks on the militants’ oil wellheads, oil and gas separation plants, and tanker trucks, mainly in oil-rich eastern Syria.
The attacks have cut production in the region in half, according to Department of Defense officials. The Pentagon is calling the bombing campaign against the oil installations Operation Tidal Wave II, named for the American daylight bombing raid on heavily defended Nazi-controlled oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania, during World War II.