While campaigning for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly declared that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq should have resulted in the seizure of oil. President Trump repeated his calls for the United States to“take the oil” from Iraq and the area controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). The U.S. spent $3 trillion on the war and lost countless soldiers, Trump argued, so to the victor belong the spoils.
“In international law, you can’t take civilian goods or seize them,” Anthony Cordesman, a seasoned military strategist, told The Guardian. “That would amount to a war crime.” Not even Britain, which colonized Iraq after World War I, did such a thing, he added. Trump doesn’t realize that any effort to seize Iraqi oil would require tens of thousands of troops stationed in Iraq. That would, in turn, generate unending guerrilla warfare by Iraqis as well as an uptick in terrorist acts committed against the U.S.
The Iraqi government was baffled by President Trump’s statement. Fortunately, Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis, upon his arrival in Baghdad in February, immediately stated that American soldiers fighting ISIS in Iraq are not there “to seize anybody’s oil.” It’s not clear, however, whether Trump has entirely abandoned his earlier position.
The Oil Curse
The discovery of oil in Iraq in 1908 unleashed considerable international interest in harnessing the resource to fuel the economies of world powers like Britain, France and, to a much lesser extent, the U.S. The end of World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire advanced the goal of world powers, including the U.S., to gain access to that oil to develop their economies. The use of oil to fuel ships, aviation and transportation helped increase their military prowess as well. The power and influence of the U.S. and its interest in oil to expand its economy grew after World War II. The importance of this commodity is illustrated by the 1973 oil embargo. Although the embargo ended peacefully, the U.S. did at one point consider seizing oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi.
Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves and produces about 4.6 million barrels of crude oil per day. Oil is the nation’s primary source of income and is nearly its only source of energy. But countries that possess a significant amount of oil are also cursed. First, powerful nations want to colonize them to get easier access to the oil. Second, nations can become economically dependent on oil and fail to develop other sectors of their economy like manufacturing and technology. Of course, colonizers also make sure these countries cannot develop an independent economic capacity so they continue to rely on the colonizer’s manufacturing and technological products.
Iraq is a good example of this dynamic, but has had an additional problem: It’s never been entirely clear which ethnic group owns the oil. The country’s colonizers have used this confusion to divide, weaken and conquer the population. This problem has particularly complicated relations between the state and the Kurds.
There are about 6 million Kurds in Iraq, most of them in northern Iraq, or Kurdistan. There is oil in Kurdistan, but the amount depends on what boundaries the Kurds can claim. Kurds also reside in southern Turkey (15 million), eastern Syria (2 million), and Iran (6 million). Although most Kurdish areas border each other — and Kurdish history and culture suggest that they deserve their own country — the global political situation has not allowed that to happen.
However, since the U.S. declared a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991, the Kurdish region has been semi-autonomous for all practical purposes. The U.S. had long sought to weaken Middle Eastern countries to serve U.S. friends and allies in the region. Implementation of the no-fly zone achieved that goal. Kurdistan became a safe haven for many U.S. activities to control Iraq and combat Iran. The weakening of Iraq also facilitated the invasion of the country in 2003.
Iraqi Kurds have the right to demand their share of oil in northern Iraq. However, since Kurdistan is officially part of Iraq, the central government determines its actual boundaries and thus the amount of oil that belongs there. But outside powers (like the U.S.) gave the go-ahead to oil companies (like ExxonMobil) to negotiate oil deals with Kurdistan without the approval of the central government in Baghdad. Kurdistan, meanwhile, built a pipeline through Turkey so it could control its own exports. The Iraqi government hit the roof and threatened to blacklist the Turkish companies that have cooperated with the Kurdish regional government. Iraq further declared it would sue Turkish and Kurdish governments over such oil exports.
In December, after years of haggling, the Iraqi parliament in its 2017 budget approved a formula for distributing oil revenue between the central government and the Kurdish regional government, a deal the regional government had already approved.
Blood for Oil
In late 2002, the George W. Bush administration was already planning to invade Iraq. U.S. intelligence agencies, under the pressure of Vice President Dick Cheney, produced a report based on a single source that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). With the help of the mainstream media repeating this lie, the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq in 2003.
Millions of protesters took to the streets all across the country and the world against the impending invasion of Iraq. Many held signs denouncing the invasion, including “No Blood for Oil.” Mainstream media in the U.S. focused their coverage on Saddam Hussein’s corruption and cruelty, and the necessity of removing such leaders. Most of the media dismissed the notion that the administration would invade another country for oil.
Trump’s desire to confiscate Iraqi oil echoes earlier British imperialist policies
The invasion of Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and wounded nearly a million, and set the country back 50 years. The U.S. lost 4,600 soldiers, with 40,000 wounded, not including those who developed serious mental health issues.
Time has proven that the invasion of Iraq was indeed motivated largely by oil. An extensive IraqI inquiry revealed that Tony Blair, then prime minister of Britain and a close Bush ally, discussed Iraqi oil with British oil companies. U.S. officials, too, eventually admitted the real reason for the invasion. “People say we’re not fighting for oil,” former Senator and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel observed. “Of course, we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.” Four-star General John Abizaid, former head of Central Command, said, “Of course it’s about oil, and we can’t really deny that.” Senator John McCain, on several occasions, has opined that if the U.S. became energy independent, it wouldn’t have to send soldiers to the Middle East. Numerous other U.S. leaders, scholars and military historians have come to the same conclusion.
Trump’s desire to confiscate Iraqi oil echoes earlier British imperialist policies. The international community has since evolved by implementing restrictions on the actions of major powers and attempting to make resource policies more transparent. Unfortunately, Trump is still stuck in the colonial era.
*Image: A 2011 sandstorm in Iraq. Flickr/DVIDSHUB.