Last night’s “commander-in-chief” security forum that featured Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was, not surprisingly, disappointing. (You can read the transcript here.) Trump recently stated he was in favor of large increases in defense spending, but he wasn’t asked about this. He wasn’t asked about his support of torture, nor was he challenged on his remarkably dangerous statement back in March that military officers would obey his presidential decrees, even when they were unlawful. Hillary was challenged on her email fiasco at the State Department, and rightly so, but she pretty much got a free pass on her support of the calamitous Iraq war and the chaos following the Libyan intervention. And of course neither candidate was challenged on their blanket support of Israel.
What you got was two self-absorbed candidates, one wonkish, the other one clearly a wanker, both of them posing as warriors as long as someone else’s kids are doing the fighting. Here’s a question for Trump and Hillary: the next time you deploy troops to Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan or wherever, will you include Ivanka or Chelsea, respectively, and put them in harm’s way?
Most interesting to me was Trump’s old-fashioned imperialism, which explains much of his appeal to the rabid right. Here’s what Trump had to say about how the Iraq war should have turned out for the USA:
“We [the USA] go in [to Iraq in 2003], we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.”
You have to hand it to The Donald: at least he’s occasionally honest. The Iraq war was about oil, among other things, and Trump says the USA as the “victor” should have taken it. Why? Because might makes right. Because, as Thucydides said so many centuries ago, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must.
Remember when George W. Bush said Iraq’s oil was the “patrimony” of the Iraqi people and that the USA wasn’t about to take it? That the Iraq war was about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, not a naked grab for resources? Trump is having none of that. Any wonder that he’s so popular among Americans who are tired, as they see it, of losing?
“Take the oil!” It’s a statement that could easily appear on the next iteration of Trump’s baseball cap.
Rachel Maddow at MSNBC aired a new documentary last night on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003. In a word: oil. Bush and Cheney were looking to overthrow Saddam Hussein as a prerequisite to controlling and privatizing Iraqi oil production. Pre-war planning in the U.S. as well as Great Britain focused on identifying, safeguarding, and ultimately privatizing Iraqi oil facilities. When U.S. forces took Baghdad, the one building they protected was the Iraqi oil ministry (museums containing priceless objects from the dawn of human civilization, left unprotected, were looted).
This is a familiar story, of course, though many Americans continue wrongly to believe that Saddam had WMD or that he was allied to Al Qaeda (or both). Watching the documentary, I appreciated the honesty of the Polish government, which admitted that it had participated in the invasion of Iraq precisely to gain access to Iraqi oil resources. Bush and Blair, naturally, denied any such connection, even as Bush was warning Iraqis not to damage oil facilities, even as Blair’s government was negotiating with British Petroleum on how best to divide the spoils.
When it comes to oil, maybe “The Beverly Hillbillies” song had it right: “Black gold. Texas tea.” And whether it’s black gold or the yellow variety, the West has always shown a rapacity for it that borders on the insane. Just ask the Aztecs and the Incas, for example.
Here’s an article I wrote back in 2012 for Huffington Post on the question of why the U.S. invaded Iraq and not, say, North Korea, which as Maddow points out was identified as one head of Bush’s three-headed “Axis of Evil,” but which unlike Iraq and Iran actually was hard at work on building an atomic bomb, efforts that ended in a successful test in 2006. But North Korea is not floating on a sea of oil, is it?
Why We Fight? Oil (written in 2012)
I’m old enough to remember the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and long lines for gasoline in the United States. A joke that circulated among my schoolmates caught the spirit of the moment. It involved calculators, which were fairly new back then for the masses. It went like this: 142 Arabs fight 154 Israelis for control of 69 oil wells for five years. Who wins?
Punch the numbers 142, 154, and 69 into your calculator and then multiply by 5 and you get 71077345. Turn the calculator upside down and those numbers spell out “ShELLOIL,” or so we joked. Call it the cynicism of 11-year-olds.
Thirty years later, as an Air Force officer I recall a discussion of what we should name the operation to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Wags in my office suggested the obvious: Operation IRAQI LIBERATION, with lots of chuckles about the resulting acronym (OIL). Call it the cynicism of 40-somethings.
Fighting for vital resources is nothing new in history, and nothing new in U.S. history either. Smedley Butler, the famous U.S. Marine general who penned War Is a Racket, wrote in the 1930s that “those damned oil companies” should fly their own flag — perhaps one with a gas pump on it — over foreign lands that they viewed as their personal property. Call it the cynicism of a retired major-general who twice was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But is it cynicism — or just plain honesty? Consider the book by Greg Muttitt on the Iraq war and its fallout, which places oil back where it belongs, front and center, in American motivations and machinations. This is hardly surprising, for recall the words of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that Iraq floated on a sea of oil, or the background of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his overweening ambition to dominate global energy resources.
Our nation’s great thirst for oil should come as no surprise to anyone. Even former President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he declared that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil. What’s surprising is that we continue to wrap our wars in the rhetoric of “freedom” even as we pursue the fix that our leaders believe they need to thrive: foreign oil, and lots of it.
There’s plenty of oil still in the ground in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and at $100 a barrel for oil and $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, you’re talking trillions of dollars for oil companies over the next few decades.
Considering the vast profits involved, you don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that concerns about oil continue to drive our nation’s foreign policy. But you do have to be willing to face that fact; and you do have to be willing, like General Smedley Butler was willing, to ignore the siren song about waging war for freedom and democracy.
As former President Bush said, we’re addicted to oil. And history has shown we’re willing to fight for it, though the biggest winners may well be powerful energy companies.
Don’t believe me? Read Smedley Butler or Greg Muttitt. Or just ask to see an 11-year-old’s calculator.