During NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum last week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed an unusual policy for dealing with Iraq: “Take the oil.” When host Matt Lauer asked him to elaborate, Trump doubled down. “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.”
This wasn’t the first time Trump has touted this proposal, but the forum was his biggest stage so far — and the idea was met with widespread derision. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton countered that the United States “does not invade other countries to plunder and pillage.” Laurie Blank, director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, said that taking oil from Iraq is a “Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great time-frame way of thinking about this.”
Commentators, including Stephen Mufson at The Washington Post, have offered many reasons why “taking the oil” is a terrible idea. Chief among them: Oil isn’t a “grab ’n’ go” resource; it’s extracted over years. So, if the United States wanted to take Iraq’s oil, we would have to stay in the country for decades. During that time, American troops would have to defend oil fields, processing centers and transportation routes, including hundreds of miles of pipelines.
Local resistance to an oil occupation would be intense. There would also be international condemnation; as observers have noted, exploiting a foreign country’s oil resources violates international law. And domestic support for taking Iraq’s oil would decline rapidly as U.S. casualties mounted. All for resources that we — and our allies — could buy far more cheaply on the international market.
There’s another reason, however, that the United States shouldn’t take Middle Eastern oil. We’ve rejected the idea before, under far more desperate circumstances.
From 1974–1975, in the aftermath of the first energy crisis, there was a debate in the United States about whether the country should seize Middle Eastern oil fields. In October 1973, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had cut off oil supplies to the United States in retaliation for its support of Israel in the October War.
During the six months that the embargo lasted, oil prices quadrupled. U.S. petroleum production had already peaked and seemed poised for a permanent decline. American citizens faced gas lines, an economic recession and uncertainty about their future access to oil supplies.
In late 1973, U.S. officials, particularly Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, began to float the idea of using military force to obtain oil resources. In January 1974, Schlesinger publicly stated that the United States might have to resort to force if the Arab oil producers took the embargo “too far.” The Arab states responded heatedly, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait threatening to blow up their oil fields in the event of a U.S. invasion.
In the United States, however, the idea attracted little attention until autumn 1974, when the Ford administration adopted a tougher public stance on the oil issue. Newsweek reported in October that a “top U.S. official” had recently said that, “If the oil-producing nations drive the world into depression in their greed, the West might be forced on a desperate military adventure.” The article launched a debate, which would persist for the next six months, over whether the United States should “take the oil.”
Most participants were strongly opposed to the plan. Even the top official quoted in Newsweek observed that taking the oil “would be a nightmare — trying to pump oil for decades in the midst of what would amount to guerilla war and probable worldwide terror.” Another Newsweek contributor asserted that invading foreign oil fields was “archaic.” Earl Ravenal, a foreign policy analyst writing in the New Republic, called it “international armed robbery” and inconsistent with American values. U.S. forces, he asserted, would face “sabotage,” “interdiction” of oil supplies, international “opprobrium” and “diplomatic liabilities.” Military officers who were queried on the issue concurred: “It could create the damndest row in years.”
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger weighed in on the issue in December 1974. He said that the United States would only consider seizing Middle Eastern oil if “there is some actual strangulation of the industrialized world.” Rather than dampening the debate, the remark threw fuel on the fire.
The next month, Kissinger attempted to clarify. “I think it is self-evident that the United States cannot permit itself to be strangled,” he said. “But I also do not believe that this will really be attempted. And therefore we were talking about a hypothetical case that all our efforts are attempting to avoid and that we are confident we can avoid.”
Instead of taking the oil, the Ford administration continued to rely on the international oil market and was a founding member of the International Energy Agency, which aimed to strengthen oil-importing countries’ energy security. The United States also created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which could tide the country over during brief supply shortages, and increased energy efficiency. With these innovations, the country managed to ride out the second energy crisis — no one suggested “taking the oil” in 1979–1980.
The strategy is even more ridiculous today. Over the last decade, the “shale revolution” revived American oil production and, by many measures, the United States is now the world’s No. 1 producer. Meanwhile, OPEC’s power has declined dramatically, virtually eliminating the risk of deliberate supply shutoffs. Although oil prices are still unstable, “taking the oil” is not going to solve that problem. Instead, it would create many, many more.
Emily Meierding is an assistant professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.