A fool and his oil
Raymond Ramirez | Monday, October 3, 2016
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani recently appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and told host George Stephanopoulos that “anything is legal” in war. This rejection of the Geneva Convention and other international agreements delineating actions that constitute “war crimes” was in response to a question about Donald Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. should “take the oil” of Iraq. Trump’s position is not new: In 2011, he told the Wall Street Journal, “I would take the oil. I would not leave Iraq and let Iran take the oil.”
Giuliani explained, “Leave a force back there, and take [the oil], and make sure it’s distributed in a proper way.” In response to Stephanopoulos questioning the legality of such action, Giuliani replied with a laugh, “Of course it’s legal — it’s war. Until the war is over, anything is legal.”
During a forum hosted earlier by NBC, Trump suggested oil seizure would have been a way to pay for the Iraq war, saying, “We go in, we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then … what happens is we get nothing.” His rationale, in part, was to fight the Islamic State group. “[If] we took the oil … [IS] would not have been able to take oil and use that oil to fuel themselves. 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.” Apparently, in Trump’s formulation, you do not even have to be victorious to claim the oil as a war prize.
“You’re not stealing anything,” Trump said. “We’re reimbursing ourselves. … We’re taking back $1.5 trillion to reimburse ourselves.”
Leaving aside the security concerns on levels both local (oil production and transport is a tempting target for terrorists) and regional (theft of a nation’s treasure as a rallying cry for recruiting), this strategy flaunts moral and legal conventions regarding treatment of foreign territory and property during and after wartime.
Trump’s reference to the “spoils of war” invokes a long-past era of brutal conquest and plunder, which has been tempered and rendered illegal under the international laws of war. Taking or seizing civilian goods and national energy reserves likely would amount to a war crime. As a practical matter, petroleum profits were Iraq’s major source of income, and taking such a resource without fair compensation would cripple the country even more than the effects of prolonged warfare.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur purposefully avoided depleting Japan’s resources when he oversaw the occupation of the country following World War II — he even brought resources in to help feed the desperate population. MacArthur’s actions in forgoing seizure of the spoils of war have been uniformly acknowledged as vindicating America’s status as the moral leader of the free world and laid the groundwork for a relationship of mutual respect and support with Japan.
Trump and Giuliani are also unaware of, or simply ignoring, the tremendous costs and difficulties involved to “take the oil.” Most of the oil in Iraq is not in the contested north, along the border with Syria, but rather in the far south, around the Persian Gulf. Even if you include areas held by IS in Syria, the oil reserves are not large and not highly profitable when oil is around $40 a barrel.
As far as denying IS whatever profits are available, the U.S. military has already targeted the Islamic State group’s small-scale oil refineries and oil convoys as a way of cutting off that income. To actually seize the oil fields with troops, as Trump has suggested, would involve a commitment of forces far beyond anything the U.S. is willing to sustain. The Syrian pipelines extend from the oilfields in eastern Syria to the Mediterranean coast, across the width of the country. Armed forces would need to occupy most of Syria to get the oil out. The price of the military operations alone would far exceed any revenue that could be extracted; the cost in human lives would not be justified.
And Trump is not talking about oil sitting in great pools at the surface or stored in large tanks ready for grabbing; he’s targeting reserves, i.e., oil in-place underground that would need to be produced. It’s like robbing a bank by drilling a quarter-inch hole into the vault, from 100 yards away. To recover any valuables from the vault you would then need to snake a tube through the hole and hope you make contact with something valuable.
If you are real lucky, perhaps you hit a stack of gold coins. The coins won’t fit up the tube, so to recover them you need to send some sort of tool through the tube to scrape off a little gold, and then use another tool to retrieve those gold scraps. That’s what oil production in the real world is like: unpredictable, difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Only someone blissfully ignorant of the real-world costs in lives lost, squandered national treasure and diminished global stature could entertain such a vainglorious conceit as taking another nation’s resources. Ultimately, the only product being offered to the American public is that classic standby of the unctuous peddler: snake oil.
Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.