As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton argued over how best to defeat the terror group ISIS during Monday night’s first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Trump made a couple of startling claims. First, he declared that the United States “should have taken the oil,” which, he said, would have prevented ISIS from forming.
Trump then claimed that ISIS now controls, “oil all over the place, including a lot of the oil in Libya — which was another one of her [i.e Clinton’s] disasters.”
Watch Trump make the statements starting at the 0:57 mark of the video, above.
But how do Trump’s statements about the supposed ISIS oil hold up to a fact check?
“We Should Have Taken the Oil”
Trump’s assertion that the United States should have seized oil fields as plunder from the invasion of Iraq was not the first time he had expressed that view — a view that leaves military experts baffled. In fact, Trump has been making his “take the oil” proclamation for at least the past five years.
In 2007, Trump said in a CNN interview that the United States, whose troops had been in Iraq four four years at that point, should simply “declare victory and leave.” But by the time that actually happened, four years later under President Barack Obama, Trump had added his new wrinkle to his Iraq viewpoint.
Asked by The Wall Street Journal if he, were he president, would leave U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump replied, “I would take the oil.”
Prior to Monday’s debate, Trump most recently demanded that the U.S. “take the oil” in an NBC News televised town hal forum with interviewer Matt Lauer — in which he said, “It used to be, to the victor belong the spoils,” — and in a “foreign policy speech” he delivered in August.
“I have long said that we should have kept the oil in Iraq — another area where my judgment has been proven correct,” Trump said in the speech. “I was saying this constantly and to whoever would listen: Keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil, I said — don’t let someone else get it.”
But not only would “taking the oil” violate international law and the Geneva Conventions, according to experts, actually doing so would entail a massive military operation requiring a large number of troops — troops who would likely be coming under constant threat of attack from terrorists and other opposition forces.
“Under the fourth Geneva Convention, when you are an occupying power, you are a caretaker, you are administering the territory,” Laurie Blank, director of Emory University’s International Humanitarian Law Clinic, told the Journal. “The idea is to keep it as close to status quo as possible and give it back. It’s not yours to do with it what you want. It’s not like this is some unclaimed land where everyone is running to grab the candy from the piñata.”
Beyond the legal and moral implications, which left foreign policy experts in a PolitiFact survey repulsed, the same experts also say that there is simply no practical way to seize oil fields, most of which lie isolated in arid Middle Eastern deserts hundreds or even thousands of miles from major population centers.
“It would take a permanent, massive presence to protect a static target from the tanks and heavy weaponry of an enemy with all the time in the world,” terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross told PolitiFact.
And another expert on the region painted an even bleaker picture of the Trump scenario.
“It would draw endless numbers of enemies to attack us in the Middle East and draw us into a long-term ground war, which is precisely what Trump has said he wants to avoid,” military historian Lance Janda told the publication.
“Oil All Over the Place, Including Libya”
ISIS controls no oil in Libya, and there’s no evidence that the terrorist group makes any money by illegally trading in Libyan oil, according to experts on the region.
The ISIS strategy in Libya, according to International Crisis Group senior Libya analyst Claudia Gazzini, has been to stop the Libyan government from selling oil through a series of attacks on oil fields and facilities.
“IS [i.e. ISIS] adopted a hit-and-run strategy aimed at putting oil facilities off line in order to deprive the Libyan state from obtaining revenues,” Gazzini told the independent FactCheck.org site.
“There is no evidence that they are pumping out the crude oil and certainly no evidence that they are trading it,” she added, in a separate response to an inquiry about the Libyan oil situation.
As for Trump’s claim that ISIS controls “oil all over the place,” ISIS had been gaining revenue from oil fields that the group controlled in Iraq, but that source of income has been plummeting for months due to U.S. and coalition air strikes on the ISIS oil facilities, and pressure from Iraqi government troops.
In fact, according to a report Tuesday by the Kurdish news service Rudaw, ISIS just this week lost the last two oil fields still under its control — and as a result, ISIS no longer controls any Iraqi oil at all.
“For the past two years, ISIS operated several oil wells in Iraq, selling some of the oil as well as using it to fulfill their internal needs,” Rudaw reported. “The Iraqi armed forces drove the last nail into the coffin of ISIS’ oil resources in Iraq when they retook the oilfields of Shargat and Qayyarah, leaving the militants unable to produce oil in Iraq and unable to smuggle oil out of Iraq and for sale.”
ISIS continues to control some oil facilities in Syria, though that country is not an oil-rich state, producing only between 30,000 to 40,000 barrels daily, according to a report in Forbes Magazine online.
Whether Trump proposes sending U.S. ground troops into Syria in order to “take the oil” there is not something that the Republican presidential candidate has made clear.