The ‘Cartoon Imperialist’ President
Trump hopes to enlist U.S. oil companies in the theft of Syrian oil:
President Donald Trump on Sunday said he’s interested in making a deal with ExxonMobil or another energy company to tap Syrian oil reserves.
“What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly…and spread out the wealth,” he said.
It is doubtful that any oil company would want anything to do with the president’s plunder operation, because they do not want to expose themselves to the legal problems that would come from dealing in stolen property. The wealth represented by Syria’s oil resources is not ours to “spread out,” but in order to get the president to go along with a garrison in Syria the military has dangled the prospect of “taking the oil” and he has jumped at the chance. In addition to reminding us of the president’s abiding interest in stealing other countries’ resources, the new Syria mission also shows how the president makes a habit of boasting about conduct that anyone else would try to conceal. When he abuses power or engages in obviously illegal behavior, he calls attention to it and doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s done. He publicizes wrongdoing that others in his position would be desperately trying to cover up.
The president is openly violating international law here, and he wants to brag about it. The continued U.S. military presence in Syria has no legal justification, and Trump has given them a mission to commit another crime by taking what does not belong to us. Trump’s plunder doctrine has naturally been met with international puzzlement and condemnation:
Trump’s message is puzzling to former government officials and Middle East analysts who say that controlling Syria’s oil fields — which are the legal property of the Syrian government — poses numerous practical, legal and political obstacles.
They also warn that Mr. Trump’s discourse, which revives language he often used during the 2016 campaign to widespread condemnation, could confirm the world’s worst suspicions about American motives in the region. A Russian Defense Ministry official on Saturday denounced Mr. Trump’s action as “state banditry.”
The other danger with this new deployment is that it flows from Trump’s worst instincts. He sees foreign policy in the narrowest terms of predation and exploitation. If another country has resources that can be seized, he thinks that the U.S. should take them if we can, and he faults his predecessors for “failing” to steal other countries’ natural resources outright. Trump’s interest in stealing Syrian property is also a reminder that the president has a worldview closer to that of a crude mercantilist and imperialist. Stephen Wertheim of The Quincy Institute made that observation earlier:
— Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim) October 29, 2019
This comes back to the earlier point that Trump doesn’t think there is anything wrong with what he is doing. He is proud to be involved in what the Russians are calling “state banditry.” He thinks that banditry is good and he has objected to previous military interventions because there wasn’t enough banditry. It never occurs to him to deny that he is engaged in banditry because he wants people to give him credit for it. On this point, I think Bruce Riedel is mistaken:
Mr. Riedel doubted that the president would wind up insisting on control of the oil fields. Beyond the many military, technical and legal challenges, there are the optics to consider.
“Let’s say he does do it,” Mr. Riedel said. “Let’s say we establish the precedent that we are in the Middle East to take the oil. The symbolism is really bad.”
The optics and symbolism are definitely bad, but the president doesn’t grasp that because he sees nothing wrong with plundering other countries’ resources.