Trump's Middle East talk is old GOP policy

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Story highlights

  • Meg Jacobs: Trump's promise to get tough in the Middle East isn't new foreign policy
  • Making oil policy with military force is a GOP approach dating back to the 1970s, she says

Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, "Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s" (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book's research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.

(CNN)Donald Trump delivered an important speech on Wednesday about how he plans to make America great again by "shaking the rust off America's foreign policy." This effort to convey an image of a serious candidate is part of the new phase of his campaign, as he tries to move away from the vitriol with big visions for American policy. His tone was more somber, more presidential, and less brash than his previous rhetoric.

Trump promised to give new coherence to foreign policy, putting America's interest first while being more forceful overseas against our adversaries. One pillar of his agenda, coming in the wake of President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia, is the Middle East. His speech advocated for only policies that promote "regional stability," supporting and defending U.S. allies and using military might against terrorist networks. He also blasted the Obama administration for failing to check ISIS expansion even as it sells oil in the region.
    Meg Jacobs
    This is not the first time Trump has combined economic and national security concerns by threatening to "take" oil from ISIS by force. As he told CNN last summer, "I'd bomb the hell out of the oil fields" and "I'd then get Exxon, these great oil companies to go in" to rebuild surrounded by a "ring" of U.S. troops. If the Saudis don't contribute to policing the region against ISIS and funding their own security, Trump has said he will boycott their oil until they do.
    While Trump often depicts himself as breaking with every president since Ronald Reagan, his ideas about the Middle East have their origins in the early 1990s. While Jeb Bush might be a distant memory in this race, it was his father, George H.W. Bush, the most establishment candidate in recent history, who laid the foundation for the foreign policy vision that Trump now espouses with his intervention against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
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    The United States was importing more than half its oil supply, and for the Bush administration, the solution to failed energy policy at home was, as it turned out, military intervention abroad. As James Schlesinger, former defense secretary and energy secretary remarked after the Gulf War, "As a society we have made a choice to secure access to oil by military means. It's a hell of a lot easier and a lot more fun to kick asses in the Middle East than make sacrifices and practice conservation."

    Trump's 'new' stance has long GOP history

    Trump's notion of enacting energy policy by force is hardly new, either — it has a long history stretching back well before the first Bush administration. For decades, the Republican Party has relied on military muscle to protect allies in the Middle East so as to feed the nation's voracious energy appetite rather than supporting a policy at home to use less.
    It was during the oil shocks of the 1970s that the right wing of the GOP argued for a more assertive Middle East policy. When the Arab members of OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States in 1973, there were many Republicans, including Bush, who was then the chair of the RNC, who believed the United States needed to be more aggressive to make sure the Saudis did not use the "oil weapon" again. President Nixon didn't really have that option on the table. Vietnam had devastated public support for any more military adventures.
    Yet conservatives did not give up on using military force. An anonymous article (which some speculated was written by Henry Kissinger) in Harper's Magazine under the title "Seizing Arab Oil" called for the deployment of 40,000 troops in a 10-year occupation of the oil-rich area in eastern Saudi Arabia. There was nothing subtle in its analysis: "The only feasible countervailing power to OPEC's control of oil is power itself: military power." Frustrated with the failure to stimulate domestic production, military adventurism would be the solution.
    This talk grew louder when President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was in the White House. After the oil shock precipitated by the Iranian Revolution, the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Carter announced the Carter Doctrine: a commitment to a huge American military buildup in the Persian Gulf. Republicans were not satisfied. To them, Carter was still too weak. And he was too focused on conservation. As Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman had once said, according to Daniel Yergin in "The Prize," "Conservation is not a Republican ethic."
    In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, with Bush by his side, attempted to change course. He established the United States Central Command for Southwest Asia in 1983. This command, with 300,000 troops, signaled a firm commitment by the United States to deploy force in the Persian Gulf if necessary. He also increased the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, created under President Ford, to demonstrate that Arab producers could not push the United States around.
    The strongest expression of military commitment came with the 1991 Gulf War. When Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops into Kuwait, George H.W. Bush, now in the Oval Office, immediately understood the threat that the invasion posed to oil from the region. He told his Cabinet, "The stakes are ... clear: U.S. reliability, the potential domination of Gulf energy resources with all that would entail, international order in what I call the post-postwar era."

    'Energy security is national security'

    While the President employed all sorts of rhetoric to justify a military response, energy interests were at the center of their action. Similarly, Donald Trump has projected a tough image of the United States across the globe, including in the Middle East. Whereas the central concern of policymakers in previous decades was oil, today the major threat is terrorism. He has said that ISIS' "days are numbered" and made it clear that he was prepared to "use military force" to bring stability to the region.
    In some ways Trump faces less pressure than the first President Bush. The rise of fracking and the collapse of global oil prices have taken some of the pressure off the need for a firmer Middle East stance. But as we react to and evaluate his new foreign policy postures, we must acknowledge that in reiterating his support for America's military presence in this region, he follows in well-worn GOP footsteps. As George H.W. Bush said when he committed U.S. troops, "Energy security is national security."
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    There is evidence to suggest that oil is still on Trump's mind and his past statements suggest he would be just as tough if once again OPEC asserts its power in a way Trump believes harmful to U.S. interests. In 2004, when prices were high, he said in a Playboy interview, "If I were president, I would call Saudi Arabia in right now and say, 'You get those fuel prices down or you're going to pay a heavy price.' "
    If history is any indicator, prices are likely to rise, and it seems a safe bet, as he said today, that Donald Trump would indeed do what it takes to make America first — by force if necessary.