President Donald Trump’s confused policies regarding the Middle East has been stumping analysts everywhere. The American airstrike on the Shayrat airbase in Syria on April 7, for instance, did not target the removal of Al-Assad as some people would think; it only meant to punish him for the chemical attack on Khan Shaykun.
In mid-March 2017, US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman met in the White House. During the meeting, both men diplomatically mended relations between Washington and Riyadh after Trump’s statements against Islam in general and Saudi Arabia in particular during his 2016 presidential election campaign.
This contradiction between Trump’s campaign statements and the realities of rational foreign policy was further evidence of the confusion in Trump’s mind about the nuts and bolts of Middle East problems. It was especially evident in Trump’s unrealistic, or even imaginary, links between three vital factors in American policy towards the Middle East: petroleum resources, the defence of the Arab Gulf states, and the war against the Islamic State (IS) group, or ISIS. I am not saying that the three factors are not related, but when one examines Trump’s remarks the extent of his ignorance of basic facts about the Middle East becomes evident.
Early in his election campaign, Trump seemed not to be fully aware of the details of the fight against IS as a presidential candidate should be. For example, in a radio interview on 3 September 2015 with US radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump did not seem to know the difference between the different militant groups in the Middle East like Hamas or Hizbullah. He also did not seem to know the difference between the Kurds or the Iranian army, or US allies and foes in the war against IS.
Arguably, Trump can be forgiven for confusing the names of the various factions or parties in the fight against IS, given the complexity of the situation in both Syria and Iraq and the vast number and variety of factions and armed groups and their (sometimes) shifting loyalties.
What caused more controversy than his inability to distinguish the parties in the fight against IS, however, was his statement during a speech in Iowa in November 2015. He said on this occasion that he intentionally did not answer questions about how to defeat IS because he had a plan to defeat the group but did “not want to tell ISIS what it is”. Given Trump’s usual exaggerations, and even lies, it is hard to believe that this man who has never worked in government or in the military actually had a plan to defeat IS.
He then added that “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me!” This statement caused controversy, given that Trump has never held a government post or served in the US military and that all he knows about IS, it seems, comes from what he sees in the media and what he hears about from friends in the US army or government.
Trump, who claimed that he knows more about IS than the generals, then made a number of clearly misguided and delusional statements, which involved the role of Middle East oil in the establishment of IS and how to defeat IS. These misguided statements, to be discussed below, show that Trump’s claims of knowledge about IS are, like many of his statements, mostly falsehoods.
Trump wrote in his book Time to Get Tough (published in 2011) that Saudi Arabia is “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petro-dollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”
These views came up again in an interview with the NBC News programme “Meet the Press” in August 2015. Trump was asked why Washington had diplomatic relations with Riyadh if Saudi Arabia was a supporter of terrorism. Trump replied that “the primary reason we are with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil. Now, we don’t need the oil so much... And we could let everybody else fight it out.”
He reiterated the same idea to The New York Times in an interview in March 2016. “Because of fracking [a new technology to extract more oil domestically inside the United States], and because of new technology, we’re really in a position that we weren’t in, you know, years ago, and the reason we’re in the Middle East is for oil. And all of a sudden we’re finding out that there’s less reason to be,” Trump said.
He repeated these views on “Meet the Press” when he complained that Riyadh did not pay enough for the military protection it received from the United States. “What I really mind, though, is that we back [Saudi Arabia] at tremendous expense. We get nothing for it. And they’re making a billion dollars a day,” Trump said.
When asked by the New York Times if, under his administration, Washington would tell Riyadh “we will stop buying oil from you until you send ground troops [to fight IS],” Trump replied that his answer would be “probably yes,” adding that Saudi Arabia should pay more for American military protection, especially since the United States did not import as much Saudi oil as it used to, thanks to fracking.
Trump added during this interview that the Saudis should pay for the American military bases on their territory, not the other way around. “We were paying leases for bases? We’re paying leases, we’re paying rent? OK? To have bases over there?... So America first, yes, we will not be ripped off anymore. We’re going to be friendly with everybody, but we’re not going to be taken advantage of by anybody,” he said.
However, given the smiles and diplomatic statements made by Trump and Prince Mohamed bin Salman in March, it is unlikely that Trump told his Saudi guest that Washington would stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia if Riyadh did not stop supporting terrorism. I also doubt he told him that Washington would be less involved in the Middle East because America now imported less oil.
SERIOUS MISTAKES: What is even more concerning, though, is that Trump has made serious mistakes in his statements about oil and the American military defence of the Gulf.
First, there have been no major American military bases in Saudi Arabia since 2003. After the invasion of Iraq, American troops moved from the Prince Sultan Air Base (P-SAB, the main US military base in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf), which hosted about 25,000 troops, to the Al-Udeid base in Qatar, which now hosts about 9,000 American troops.
Second, Saudi Arabia has paid billions of dollars to the United States for fighting against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. According to Edward Morse, an American energy expert and head of commodities research at Citigroup in New York, Riyadh sells oil to the United States at a discount of $1 per barrel in return for American military protection.
Third, even if the United States does not need the oil from the Arab Gulf, it still needs to remain involved in the Middle East. One reason is to protect the supplies of Arab oil that are imported by Washington’s allies in Europe and Asia to help them maintain their economic stability and thus international economic stability.
The price and supply of Arab oil affects the global economy and, by extension, that of the US. This means that even if the United States does not buy oil from the Arab Gulf states, it still has an interest in keeping these supplies and prices at reasonable levels. As a result, Trump’s talk about reducing the American involvement in the Arab world because America needs to import less oil does not reflect the American vision of Middle East security. There is also an argument that the American military presence in the Arab world is in itself a reason for anger among Muslim youth, serving as a recruitment tool for groups like IS.
The fact that Trump made these misleading statements shows that he does not understand the basic political or economic facts of the Gulf, a region vital for the political and economic stability of the world. And apart from such misplaced statements, Trump also seems obsessed with taking Iraq’s oilfields by force, allegedly to deprive IS from using them as an economic resource, and he has repeatedly made statements to this effect.
During his campaign in a speech in Iowa in November 2015, for example, Trump said that he would fight IS by seizing Iraq’s oil. “ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because they have certain oil camps, certain areas of oil that they took away… They have some in Syria, some in Iraq... I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes... I’d blow up every single inch... And you know what, you’ll get Exxon to come in there and in two months, you ever see these guys, how good they are, the great oil companies? They’ll rebuild that sucker, brand new — it’ll be beautiful, and I’d ring it, and I would take the oil,” he said.
He repeated such statements during his interview with the New York Times in March 2016. When asked about how his strategy towards IS would differ from that of the then Obama administration, Trump said that there would be two differences.
First, it would be “madness and idiocy” for Washington to fight against IS and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at the same time, he said. “They’re fighting each other, and yet we’re fighting both of them… I’m not saying Al-Assad is a good man, because he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Al-Assad, it is ISIS…You have to pick one or the other.” This statement, whether one agrees with it or not, is a reasonable argument that deserves respect. It is the second difference Trump talked about which caused more controversy.
Second, he said he would focus on taking the oil IS was pumping. “I’ve been saying, take the oil. I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil. They still haven’t taken the oil. They still haven’t taken it. And they hardly hit the oil. They hardly make a dent in the oil,” Trump said.
When the newspaper interviewer pointed out that taking Iraq’s oil would require deploying American troops on the ground in Iraq, which is “an ally, even if a dysfunctional one”, Trump replied that “I said take the oil. I’ve been saying that for years... Now we have to go in again and start fighting… We should’ve kept [the oil]. Now I would say knock the hell out of the oil and do it because it’s a primary source of money for ISIS.”
“So in other words you don’t want to take the oil right now, you want to just destroy the oil fields,” the newspaper asked. Trump replied, “now we have to destroy the oil. We should’ve taken it and we would’ve have it. Now we have to destroy the oil.”
Again, there are two controversial aspects of what Trump said. First, the United States has already been bombing the oil installations under IS control since the American air strikes against the group in Iraq and Syria started in the summer of 2014. It was therefore not very clear how destroying the IS oil installations would differ from what the US administration was already doing. It is also not true that the American air strikes against IS had “hardly made a dent” in the oil facilities. The group’s oil production has declined from 70,000 barrels per day to only 20,000 barrels per day because of the American air strikes.
Second, even though Trump said that he wanted to “destroy” the oil installations under IS control, he still sometimes makes statements that show that he wants to invade Iraq’s oil installations instead of destroying them. This has caused members of his administration to distance themselves from his statements and even publicly dismiss them.
“ANOTHER CHANCE”: On 21 January 2017, one day after his inauguration as president, Trump made his first official visit to the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where he gave a speech in honour of agents who had fallen while serving the United States.
Trump has previously made statements against the American intelligence community because of unconfirmed reports that the Russians had tapes of his dealing with prostitutes in Moscow. Therefore, this visit was seen as an attempt to mend relations between the US president and the intelligence community. During his speech, however, Trump made controversial comments about IS and Iraq’s oil that many in the intelligence community saw as going against their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world in the fight against IS.
Citing the old expression “to the victor belong the spoils,” Trump repeated calls that after the American invasion of Iraq (which he has claimed, falsely, that he was against from the beginning), the United States should have kept Iraq’s oil “for economic reasons”. Then he added, “but if you think about it… if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance.”
I argued in an article titled “The Middle East and Donald Trump” in Al-Ahram Weekly (Issue 1320, 17-23 November 2016) that Trump lied when he said that he was against the invasion of Iraq before it took place. Apart from that, though, his statement that the Americans should have “another chance” to seize Iraq’s oil has caused a great deal of concern within the American military, the American intelligence community, and the Iraqi government. Numerous experts have said that any American attempt to take over Iraq’s oil would be extremely expensive, unrealistic, and even unfeasible. Once more, such a statement shows Trump’s lack of grasp of the realities of the Middle East.
On 24 January this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi tried to dismiss Trump’s statements about “another chance” to seize Iraq’s oil. Al-Abadi said at a press conference that “it wasn’t clear what he meant. Did he mean in 2003? Or to prevent terrorists from seizing Iraq’s oil? Iraq’s oil is constitutionally the property of Iraqis.” To reduce the tension, Al-Abadi added that he had received “assurances from President Trump that the assistance to [Iraq] will continue and that it will also increase”.
But Trump caused more confusion on 25 January during an interview with the US channel ABC’s David Muir. Muir pressed Trump on his statements about having “another chance” and what they meant. “So you believe we can go in and take the oil,” Muir asked. Trump evaded the question and repeated his claims that America should have taken Iraq’s oil to prevent IS from being established.
Muir then reiterated his question: “what got my attention, Mr President, is when you said ‘maybe we’ll have another chance.’” Trump replied, “well, don’t let it get your attention too much because we’ll see what happens.” Then he repeated his earlier statements that he did not want to talk about his military plans against IS as he wanted to keep them secret so the enemy would not have time to prepare.
But Trump’s statements show genuine confusion and not an attempt to confuse the enemy by declaring an intention to invade Iraq to take the country’s oil, which everyone knows would be unfeasible, counter-productive and extremely costly.
Even members of his own administration are distancing themselves from his statements. A few weeks later on 20 February US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stopped at Abu Dhabi before his first visit to Baghdad. He was asked by reporters about Trump’s statement that America would have “another chance” to take Iraq’s oil. Mattis distanced himself from Trump’s remarks, replying that “we’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.”
Another controversy from Trump’s speech at the CIA was his claim that “if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place.” This is simply not true. If we look at the group’s origins, which started in 2003 under the late Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in an American air raid in 2006, we can see that oil was not a significant source of funding.
Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book entitled ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, has said that Trump’s statements that the group would never have been established if the United States had seized Iraq’s oil are an “oversimplification”. Despite the importance of oil in financing IS in recent years, oil was only a small part of the group’s “origins and early years”, when it morphed from Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003 to the current proto-state that is trying to claim a worldwide caliphate.
If Trump does not understand the link between oil, terrorism and the geopolitics of Middle East defence, how can he make policy on the Middle East? How can he claim to have a plan against IS if he does not understand these factors? How can he claim to “know more about ISIS than the generals”? Given Trump’s statements about seizing Iraq’s oil and against Islam as a religion, it seems that the US president, if left unchecked, could be a global cause of concern greater or similar to terrorism, as his statements could serve as a stimulator or a recruitment tool for it.
Perhaps Trump knows that his statements are wrong, but keeps repeating them because he thinks that admitting his mistakes would be a sign of weakness. Nevertheless, members of his administration are distancing themselves from them. This may be a source of hope that reason will prevail.
The writer is a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the UK. He is an assistant professor of political science at Future University in Egypt.