Trump’s Iraqi obsession wasn’t ISIL but oil – Politico
Donald Trump has proclaimed President Barack Obama “the founder” of the Islamic State, arguing that Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 was a strategic blunder that allowed the terror group to flourish. “The way he got out of Iraq was that, that was the founding of [ISIL],” Trump told the conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday.
The talking point delights Trump’s followers. But whether it reveals anything about Trump’s own policy judgment is debatable. As the U.S. prepared to exit Iraq in 2011, Trump offered conflicting and muddled opinions about America’s role in the country. He incorrectly predicted that Iran would “walk in” and lay claim to Iraq’s oil fields. In multiple interviews and a book, he said nothing about the threat of ISIL-style radicalism that many experts were publicly warning about at the time.
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On at least once occasion in early 2011, Trump even said he supported a speedy U.S. withdrawal from the country. Asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan in a February 2011 interview what he would do about U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump said he would “get them out real fast.”
In June 2014, Trump even echoed one of Obama’s key defenses of his decision to exit Iraq: that the U.S. left at Baghdad’s insistence. “Iraq told us to get out, Iraq is now falling, and Iraq now wants us to come back!” Trump tweeted as ISIL rampaged across the country.
Roughly 166,000 U.S. troops occupied Iraq in mid-2007. By mid-2011 that figure was below 50,000. A dual sectarian civil war and anti-U.S. insurgency had subsided and Obama ordered the last U.S. forces out by the end of the year. Obama has said that Iraq’s Parliament would not approve legislation allowing American troops to stay under terms, including legal immunity, acceptable to the United States. Republicans have argued that Obama could have tried harder to win such an agreement.
Although he told Morgan he would remove U.S. troops quickly, on several other occasions in 2011, Trump—who was then weighing a 2012 presidential bid—criticized Obama’s decision to withdraw.
But Trump’s strategic reasoning was not exactly prescient. At the time, many Republicans, generals and experts publicly warned about the possible resurgence of Al Qaeda in the country. (ISIL evolved from Al Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist network that fought the U.S. occupation and Iraq’s government in the 2000s.) A few years earlier, President George W. Bush had warned that a rapid exit “would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to Al Qaeda.”
Instead, Trump fixated on the specific concern that Iran would take control of Iraq’s oil.
“Two minutes after we leave, Iran is going to come in and take the oil,” Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in an April 2011 interview. “You stay and you protect the oil.”
“Iran’s gonna walk in, take it over,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal a few days later. “The last thing that I want to see happen is for Iran to go in and take over Iraq and the oil fields of Iraq … So I say we take the oil.”
Although even Obama officials fretted about Iranian influence in Baghdad, mainstream experts did not take seriously the idea that Iran would commandeer Iraqi’s oil or territory. “At some level, Iranians may seek to outright control Iraq as a proxy, although there is nothing to suggest that Tehran seeks to conquer Iraq,” Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution, wrote in November 2015.
Iranian influence over Baghdad has grown in recent years, particularly as Tehran has aided Iraq’s fight against ISIL with military commanders and equipment since the radical militant group began seizing Iraqi territory in early 2014. But despite Trump’s prediction, Iran has made no effort to commandeer Iraqi oil.
One person who did focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism in Iraq after a U.S. troop withdrawal was Hillary Clinton, whom Trump has also described in recent days as a “founder” of ISIL.
As a candidate for president in 2008, Clinton cautioned about leaving the country too quickly. In a March 2008 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton warned that “we cannot allow Iraq to become a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorists,” adding that her withdrawal plan “will not mean retreating from fighting terrorism in Iraq.”
“That’s why I will order small, elite strike forces to engage in targeted operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Clinton added.
U.S. officials say Clinton repeated those concerns during meetings of Obama’s national security team, siding with military officials who wanted to preserve a residual troop force in Iraq beyond 2011, even if it numbered only in the few thousands. Clinton’s viewpoint was overruled by the White House.
Trump seems to have shown no interest in counterterrorism or the prospect of resurgent radicalism. For the mogul, America’s only interest in the country was petroleum.
In his 2011 book “Time to Get Tough,” Trump argued at length that the U.S. should “protect and control the oil fields” of Iraq, which are mostly located in south Iraq, far from the Sunni territories where ISIL has operated.
Trump’s book also argued for establishing a “cost-sharing plan” that would divide Iraq’s billions of dollars in oil revenue and reimburse the U.S. for its expenses from invading and occupying the country. “Call me old school, but I believe in the old warrior’s credo that ‘to the victor go the spoils,'” Trump wrote.
Indeed, Trump suggested in his Wall Street Journal interview that oil profits were a reason why he approved of the 2003 invasion of Iraq—which in recent months he has insisted he always opposed, despite evidence to the contrary.
“I always heard that when we went into Iraq, we went in for the oil. I said, eh, that sounds smart,” he said. “But we never did.”