President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal has produced much hand-wringing from its supporters. Some of the angst is understandable. Former administration officials and many in the foreign policy establishment thought the deal was our best option for dealing with the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons. I don’t agree, but acknowledge that the path Trump has chosen carries considerable risks (as, of course, did Obama’s).
However, one criticism being leveled at Trump’s decision is bogus and cynical. Former Obama administration officials are complaining that Trump’s move harms America’s reputation for compliance with international agreements.
“When the United States unilaterally abrogates an international agreement in the absence of any breach, we undermine international perceptions of our reliability and responsibility,” Susan Rice sniffs. “Trump’s action. . .severely undermines the credibility of the United States to uphold international agreements that we sign which will endure after he is gone,” Ben Rhodes adds.
But, as Jack Goldsmith points out, President Obama made this deal on his own presidential authority, in the face of significant domestic opposition, without seeking or receiving approval from the Senate or the Congress. Thus, under our Constitution, the U.S. committed itself to abide by the deal only for as long as Obama remained president — a fact Obama and his team fully understood.
Goldsmith, no Trump supporter, puts it this way:
Sorry, but you don’t get to make an enormously consequential international deal in the face of opposition from Congress, and skirt the need for congressional consent by making the agreement non-binding under domestic and international law, and then complain about a withdrawal from the fragile non-binding agreement you made when a new president who ran on the issue and won does what a majority of Congress wanted at the time.
Goldsmith quotes Federalist 75, in which Alexander Hamilton explained the wisdom of the original constitutional mechanism of Senate approval for treaties in terms directly applicable to the Iran deal. It would be “utterly unsafe and improper to intrust” the “entire power of making treaties” in the president alone, since the president alone could not be trusted to serve the national interest, Hamilton argued. “The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a President of the United States.”
Obama, having an exalted opinion of his virtue and wisdom, and knowing that the Senate didn’t back him, wanted to commit the U.S. to the momentous Iran deal without securing the necessary legislative consent. He did so knowing that the commitment he made could be overturned with “a stroke of the pen” (to use Sen. Tom Cotton’s phrase) by his successor.
Thus, Goldsmith is absolutely right when he concludes: “If the United States’ reputation for upholding agreements takes a hit, the responsibility for that outcome lies squarely with the original decision by the Obama administration to make the hugely consequential deal on its own.” Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes can whine all they want. It doesn’t change this reality.
Meanwhile, Sen. Cotton deserves credit (along with dozens of his Republican colleagues) for warning Iran that its deal with Obama was not binding on the next administration. That warning makes it all the more absurd for the likes of Rice and Rhodes to complain that Trump’s action undermines America’s reliability and credibility. Iran and the rest of the world were on notice, thanks to Cotton.
The real complaint of Rice, Rhodes, etc. is with the U.S. Constitution. What else is new?