Donald Trump has wondered why the United States didn’t take Iraq’s oil to pay for our invasion. He has insisted that the United States must TAKE THE OIL!
The United States didn’t take the oil because pillaging, theft during war, is a war crime (more here). If a practical reason is needed, oil production and pipelines are extremely vulnerable to sabotage and military action. A continuing military presence would be needed to protect the seized oilfields. Trump seems to believe that the oil can be rapidly pumped from the ground and removed. It can’t.
Trump came into office promising to get American troops out of the Middle East. Many people support that goal. We have been in Afghanistan for eighteen years now. It’s not clear that our presence in the region has improved American security, and now our Saudi partners are dragging us into a war in Yemen.
But Trump knows nothing about military action or our relations with the countries in the region and refuses to learn. Nor does he care to use the decision-making aids available to the President. He has some longstanding prejudices, however, along with his willingness to make decisions impulsively.
After a telephone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump broadcast his decision via tweet to remove American troops from northeast Syria. The withdrawal leaves the Kurds vulnerable to the Turks, who want the Kurds out of the way. Trump assured us that Erdoğan would not harm the Kurds; he would punish Erdoğan with sanctions if he did.
Then Trump changed his mind and sent Erdoğan a letter that sounded like it came from a middle-school bully. Not all the troops were withdrawn. Some were sent to Saudi Arabia. And now the military is concerned that Trump may want to send them all back.
Trump’s ignorance and impulsiveness in this matter have caused problems from the logistical to the constitutional.
Trump’s tweet surprised the American military. They appear to have had no plans for withdrawal, although Trump has been talking about it since his campaign. A case can be made that withdrawal from northeastern Syria, particularly as abruptly as Trump required, is the wrong thing to do. But the military is subject to the civilian Commander-in-Chief, and they should have made a plan. It’s a bit puzzling, because the military is famous for having plans for actions as improbable as invading Canada.
Trump should have known that armies cannot withdraw from combat in the space of time it takes to send a tweet, or even over a few days. Trump could have instructed the military to make plans for withdrawal at the beginning of his presidency, since that was one of his promises. A plan would have dealt with how to protect the Kurds and how long a withdrawal would be likely to take under various circumstances. It could have even covered protecting the oil.
Military and other advisors seem to have used the idea of taking the oil to convince Trump to maintain a presence in the area after his tweet. Trump feels no obligation to the Kurds, and seems convinced that ISIS is defeated and cannot return. But he does want to take the oil. A National Guard unit from South Carolina is now guarding northeast Syria’s tiny oilfields with armored vehicles unsuited to dealing with ISIS.
This corrupts the chain of command. The President made a decision. The military is supposed to take his orders. But they and others have argued back and effectively rescinded the decision, although the troops now in place have a different mission than before. Trump began the corruption by ignoring the National Security Council process for decision-making that would have taken recommendations from the military, the State Department, and others before the decision was made.
Nobody seems now to know what the mission is. Protecting the oilfields is the stated reason the National Guard troops are there. Are there American rules of engagement for encounters with Syrian government troops? Turkish troops? ISIS? Russian troops? Is any of this consistent with the existing Authorization for the Use of Military Force?
Once upon a time, wars in the Middle East were cynically characterized as “blood for oil.” Now that charge is irrefutable, supported by the words of the President.
A Pentagon spokesperson says that the income from oil wells in the Kurdish areas will go to the Kurds. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the United States from “taking the oil.” Trump has said that he wants American companies to develop the oilfields, but they have no interest in doing that illegally, nor in a combat zone.
Trump knows nothing of international law, the geology of northeast Syria, the production of oil, or loyalty to allies. He sees the American military as a profit center. The number of American troops in Syria has remained constant since his pronouncement, but their mission has become less clear. Trump’s ego demands that he proclaim some sort of victory. His ignorance results in inappropriate decision-making by the Department of Defense.
He is unfit to be president.