Imperialism (Redux) Worrisome Rhetoric At A Time Of Uncertainty

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on Aug. 25, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on Aug. 25, 2016.

As a foreign observer of this year’s U.S. presidential race, it is often difficult to know what to think. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton is consistently portrayed as being a party insider: self-serving, untrustworthy, and corrupt. On the other hand, Donald Trump is simply too difficult, or rather, too outrageous, to define, leaving most of us who are observing from abroad wondering what to think. For the most part, however, we strive to be impartial.

And yet, recent and not so recent statements by the Republican nominee Donald Trump can’t help but send a shiver down one’s spine, especially if you’re from the Middle East like me. Further, the trouble is that most of us don’t even know where to begin. A ban on all Muslims entering the United States? A moratorium on refugees? “Extreme vetting?” The list goes on and on – it’s enough to unsettle even the most conservative and pro-U.S. political analyst from the Middle East. But there always has to be a breaking point, and Trump’s recent comments about the failings of the U.S. invasion of Iraq certainly came close.

Specifically, in defending his claim that President Obama created ISIS, Trump somehow found an opportunity to reiterate his belief that the U.S. should have “kept the oil” after defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces, using the proceeds to pay for the war and to distribute to wounded U.S. service members and their families. Somewhat ironically, a similar belief was shared by Saddam Hussein himself, who years earlier had invaded Kuwait precisely so his country could reclaim lost territory and, in the process, seize Kuwait’s vast oil reserves in order to pay off Iraqi war debt. Apparently, Trump forgot the lessons learned by Iraq and instead pressed ahead with his vision of how the invasion should have concluded. “In the old days,” he noted, “to the victor belonged the spoils,” which apparently serves as a sufficient justification to adopt this policy as his own. The problem of course is that the old days don’t exist any longer, and Trump’s “keep the oil” mantra comes dangerously close to resurrecting the ghost of the West’s imperialist past that we all thought was dead and buried. The fact that anyone could even entertain such an idea, let alone triumph it as some sort of foreign policy, is disheartening at best, and also a worrisome reminder of how difficult it is to check our worst impulses in times of war or fear.

For those of us in the Middle East, where our country’s natural resources are perhaps our greatest – and often our only – financial asset, Trump’s call to keep the oil suggests that the line between peace-keeping or “nation-building” and imperialism is precariously thin, and that we remain vulnerable despite our modernity and wealth. Such a policy, where an invaded and vanquished country must sacrifice its sole means of supporting itself and its people in order to pay off the debt owed to the “liberating” country sounds like a plot line in The Game of Thrones, and yet Trump insists that it remains both a justified and logical conclusion to any hard fought battle. It appears as though he believes that it was necessary to punish Iraq for inciting the invasion, as if its military defeat wasn’t sufficient to satisfy American victors and justice demands reparations. Like Shakespeare’s famous villain Shylock, the United States under Donald Trump will demand its pound of flesh, and the Middle East will be the first to pay up.

What Trump fails to consider, however, is that, by interjecting this type of idea into the discourse, he is not only scoring a few points with his hawkish constituents, but is also threatening to undermine a fragile trust that has existed between the West and the Middle East only since the end of World War II. This trust, which both implicitly and explicitly disavowed the “to the victor goes the spoils” mentality, was built on the understanding that Western nations would no longer claim the natural resources of another country as their own, whether through right or might. For over a half a century this understanding has provided countries in the Middle East and elsewhere with the sense of security necessary to develop and thrive; whatever happens, we thought, at least we will have our natural resources to survive. Trump’s words ignore this pact and instead serve only to heighten our suspicions and fear that for many Westerners the “third” world remains valuable only to the extent that it can satisfy the “first” world’s insatiable appetite for resources. It’s enough to make us wonder if change is even possible.

Of course, whether Donald Trump actually means any of what he says continues to be a subject of serious debate, making it difficult to gauge how likely it is that “keep the oil” will remain a facet of U.S. foreign policy in the event that he becomes president. Still, the very fact that Trump chose to re-insert this idea into his campaign indicates that “keep the oil” has at least some traction among Americans – he is, after all, the self-proclaimed voice of the silent majority – and this is troubling. Hopefully, Middle Easterners (and Africans, and South Americans, and South East Asians) are not the only ones who find such rhetoric worrisome and threatening, and Americans consider the ramifications of such an imperialist policy and reject “keep the oil” outright. While it may be tempting for the victor to take the spoils, keeping the oil can serve only to spoil the victor and, moreover, would mark one step backward for the entire international community.