I was overseas on a missions trip in a developing country when the U.S. invaded Iraq. It was eye opening, because it meant my introduction to the war consisted of watching foreign television on screens in restaurants and fielding questions from non-Americans. I was a teenager, and I didn’t question the conservative politics my parents raised me on, but I also didn’t forget this experience.
The moment that made the biggest impact on me was when a woman asked me why the U.S. was invading Iraq to take its oil. I was shocked. I was shook. This was not true, I told her. The U.S. was not invading Iraq for its oil. I probably said something about weapons of mass destruction, but I know I was firm on one thing—it was simply not true that the U.S. was after Iraq’s oil.
It was not until some years later, in college, that I studied American imperialism. I learned that the number of countries the U.S. has invaded is long. Very long. And I learned that the U.S. has often involved itself militarily in other countries for self serving reasons. To say the least.
In other words, the question I received about the U.S. invading Iraq for its oil was, shall we say, valid.
I remember Iraqi oil being talked about in the first few years after invasion. Some argued that we should seize the oil and sell it and pocket the proceeds, as payment for the costs we incurred invading the country, a perverse suggestion when you really think about it. Others arguing that we should do no such thing, that it would confirm anti-American ideas and claims about the U.S.
I knew what they were talking about. I remembered the question I’d received, halfway around the world. The question that had so confused me.
All of this has come crashing back in recent months. Wave a look at this tweet by Aaron Rupar, a journalist at Vox who helpfully broke down Trump’s comments at yesterday’s NATO meetings:
Trump on the Kurds: “We have taken the oil. I’ve taken the oil. We should have done it in other locations, frankly, where we were. I can name four of them right now, but we’ve taken the oil … our great soldiers are right around the oil where we’ve got the oil.”
And then there’s this bit too:
Trump, during bilateral with Merkel, on the Turkey-Syria border: “Maybe someday they’ll give me credit, but probably not … that border is a mess for long time. We pulled our soldiers out and took over the oil. We have soldiers where the oil is — that’s the way I like it.”
Trump has been saying some version of this ever since he first started trying to save face after inviting Turkey to invade Syria in October. Yes, he let Turkey invade another country and drive Kurds from their homes, but don’t worry—he got the oil! I’m sorry … what?! When did that become our objective—our reason for being there? But then—well—that may be the wrong question.
Last month, President Bashir Al Assad of Syria said the following:
I tell you he’s the best American president. Why? Not because his policies are good, but because he’s the most transparent president.
All American presidents commit crimes and end up taking the Nobel Prize and appear as a defender of human rights and the ‘unique’ and ‘brilliant’ American or Western principles. But all they are is a group of criminals who only represent the interests of the American lobbies of large corporations in weapons, oil, and others.Trump speaks with transparency to say ‘We want the oil.’ This is the reality of American politics since the Second World War at least. ‘We want to get rid of this person… We want to provide a service in return for money.’ This is the reality of American politics. What do we want more than a transparent foe?
As I read these words I think about myself as a teenager, standing in a field near a mission school on another continent, my mount open in bafflement as I tried to comprehend what has just been said to me. I think of myself, responding almost automatically, insistently. No, no! I said. It isn’t about oil!
I think of myself in a college classroom several years later, reading Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire and wondering whether maybe—maybe—it might have actually been about the oil.
Which is better? A world where we have lofty ideals but don’t always—or even usually—live up to them? Or a world in which we stop pretending to even have lofty ideals? I’m honestly not sure. In the first scenario, reformers have a set of common verbally stated ideals they can appeal to. But then, what added harm does the hypocrisy of claiming ideals and not living up to them cause?
I remember when President Obama was elected, the response we saw around the world. Finally, a president who would do things differently. Hope and change. Historians will likely spend a long time hashing out his actual record, of course, but still. There was something real there. Some hope.
Going from that to this—Trump’s dispensing with any effort to even pretend our involvement abroad is about protecting things like human rights—it feels like whiplash.
My children and I have been talking a lot about empire, lately. I’m not completely sure why. Maybe because Thanksgiving led to conversations about colonization, and the origins of our own country. Maybe because we’ve been watching The Crown, and I have to stop and explain about Rhodesia, or Egypt, or why her royal tour took Queen Elizabeth to the Caribbean.
I’ve told my children that the United States, too, is an empire. I’ve talked with them about what that looks like, about what it means. Empire. There’s so much contained in one little word. Perhaps being more honest is a good thing, a la Trump’s comments. But then, there is a difference between being honest about what is, and claiming that what is is right and good. These are not the same thing.
Which, then, is better? Hypocrisy, or blatant and unashamed wrongdoing? The hypocrisy involves a failure to acknowledge what we are actually doing—the reality that we are violating our ideals. Trump’s approach, in contrast, does involve an acknowledgement of what we are actually doing abroad—paired with a rejection not of this violation, but of the ideals. This, surely, is the worst of all worlds.
For my part, I try to hold together two things—a knowledge of what we actually are, and a belief in what we could be—an acceptance of reality, and a stubborn adherence to our stated lofty ideals.
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