Donald Trump has spent the better part of a month telling the world that the United States is withdrawing from parts of Syria. It's increasingly obvious, however, that the president's claims aren't altogether true. Indeed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained on Friday that the Pentagon is dispatching armored vehicles and combat troops into Syria in order to protect oil fields.
The Washington Post had a fascinating behind-the-scenes report on this, noting that Trump administration officials came to realize that the president wouldn't be swayed by focusing on how his decision would affect other countries, because Trump didn't care if U.S. adversaries grew stronger as a result of his agenda. What the Republican did care about, however, was oil -- so that's what officials emphasized to steer him away from the complete withdrawal he had in mind.
One official described the process of changing Trump's mind with an oil-centric pitch: "This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce." (The baby, in this analogy, is the Commander in Chief of the world's most dominant military.)
That said, the officials who assumed the president would be swayed by arguments related to oil were correct. Consider Trump's comments yesterday while announcing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's demise.
"[W]e 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."
Reflecting on the Syrian oil's value, Trump went on to say that the United States "should be able to take some," adding, "[W]hat I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly."
In context, "it" appeared to refer to extracting oil.
So to recap, Donald Trump, contradicting weeks of rhetoric about withdrawing troops from Syria, now wants Americans to know he's prepared to use the military "to fight for the oil" that he believes the United States is entitled to. Trump apparently intends to get ExxonMobil involved in the scheme.
The rhetoric was unexpectedly explicit, but it didn't come out of nowhere. Ten days ago, as part of a White House teleconference with the International Space Station, the Republican took some time to declare, "We've taken control of the oil in the Middle East, the oil that we're talking about; the oil that everybody was worried about." A few days later, he returned to the subject at a cabinet meeting, suggesting he might be willing to "work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money" from the oil that Trump seemed eager to take.
Between Oct. 18 and Oct. 25, Trump proceeded to tweet about Syrian oil almost literally every day.
There are all kinds of questions surrounding the president's thoughts on this. It's not at all clear, for example, how exactly Trump thinks the United States will have the practical wherewithal to extract and export large quantities of oil from Syria. There's also the matter of international law, which frowns upon counties using military force to take the resources of foreign countries.
There's no reason to believe Trump has thought this far ahead, and by all appearances, he doesn't seem to care.