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It’s nice the world is rid of Abu Bker al-Baghdadi. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. One of the most bizarre epiphenomena of the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 was the reticence of conservatives to admit it was a good thing for America. So too any blow to the leadership of ISIS, whose activities I don’t think any of us endorse, is a good thing.
Much has been made of Trump’s bizarre announcement of the feat. It was of course absurd and embarrassing in all the usual ways. Consider Obama’s announcement of the bin Laden hit in 2011. While it had a fair amount of maudlin 9/11 heartstring-tugging (“Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts”), it was otherwise relatively sober and both written and spoken in clear English, with none of the rambling incoherence nor the lurid “died like a dog,” “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” details to which Trump kept returning. (Trump clearly sought to rouse the bloodlust of his rageaholic fans in the same way that the rightwing emails I cover here in the This is Hardcore series do — and he had to really lay it on thick because I’m sure that, unlike with bin Laden, 95% of his rubes had no idea whom Baghdadi was.)
Trump also wove a bunch of ridiculous lies into his address, most spectacularly claiming that he’d predicted that bin Laden would commit something like the World Trade Center bombing — in one of his books, no less. (Fact check: Are you kidding.) He also suggested that killing bin Laden was not a big deal compared to killing Baghdadi.
But all that’s typical — you could no more expect the appropriate gravity for the situation from Trump than you could expect it from a badly brought-up child. For opponents to even talk about it sounds like sour grapes. Clearly the audience Trump is addressing are very different in character and intelligence than any previous crop.
What’s more interesting is the stuff Trump said about the oil in the region. He has made comments about that before that were similarly weird, but never in an address of this importance, nor in a way that so obviously (I was going to say “clearly” but he’s never clear) showed what he thought about America’s continuing role in the Middle East.
You’ll recall that during the 2016 campaign Trump promised to end America’s foreign adventurism (and was believed by people who should have known better like Maureen “Hillary the Hawk, Donald the Dove” Dowd at the Times). But he also said, repeatedly, that he wanted to “take the oil.” Since Trump mainly just blurted out things he thought would excite his campaign audiences, he never bothered to tie these notions together. But in his address on Sunday, mainly because he spent so much time rambling, he sort of did that:
Look, we don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years. They’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. We’re out. But we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s okay. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there’s massive amounts of oil.
And we’re securing it for a couple of reasons. Number one, it stops ISIS, because ISIS got tremendous wealth from that oil. We have taken it. It’s secured.
Number two — and again, somebody else may claim it, but either we’ll negotiate a deal with whoever is claiming it, if we think it’s fair, or we will militarily stop them very quickly. We have tremendous power in that part of the world. We have — you know, the airport is right nearby. A very big, very monstrous, very powerful airport, and very expensive airport that was built years ago. We were in there — we’re in that Middle East now for $8 trillion.
It goes on like that a while — as Trump always does when, like Bluto in Animal House, he’s rolling — but the gist is a stark admission that — though he throws in a casual reference to stopping ISIS (in much the same way he occasionally interrupts his racist tirades to say how good his presidency has been for African-American employment rate) — we are only there for the oil, to which we have a right because we spent a lot of money blowing the place up and we need to get recompensed for our effort.
We’re used to dismissing Trump’s mouthfarts, but since he is President just as James Monroe once was (I know, depressing thought, right), we may take this seriously as his official Doctrine: That everything the most radical anti-imperialist protestors claimed about America’s involvement in the Middle East was right — our adventures there are a trade of blood for oil.
This has been denied for years by conservatives like Victor Davis Hanson (“The smear of Bush was the bookend of another popular canard, the anti-Bush slogan ‘No blood for oil.’ Once the fact that the U.S. did not want Iraqi oil was indisputable, that slander metamorphosed”) and libertarians like those of the Cato Institute (“If access to oil were of concern to [Bush and Blair], one might have expected members of their administrations to hint as much”). But the current leader of their movement has restated the case with the crude directness of a 40s movie gangster. If for nothing else we should be grateful for his clarity.