President Trump has signaled his intention to leave the Iran deal. I shall leave analysis of the merits and demerits of this decision to others. This is not my area, and I shall affect no expertise. But I do want to quickly note one thing — namely, that those who are worried about the effect this will have on America’s “standing” in the world should be extremely angry with President Obama today. Ben Rhodes, who admitted to lying to credulous journalists in his attempt to get the deal through, is scared that the reversal will be “devastating to U.S. credibility globally.” “Why,” he asks, “would anyone trust an international agreement that the U.S. negotiates?”
The answer to this, traditionally, is “because the deal was ratified by the Senate.”
This deal, however, was not ratified by the Senate. Instead, Rhodes’s boss deliberately bypassed our constitutional structure and struck the agreement unilaterally, the operating theory being that if the president called it something other than a “treaty” then it would become something other than a treaty. Which, of course, it . . . did. In my view, circumventing the Senate in this way was a gross violation of the American system of government and a disgraceful exercise in linguistic gamesmanship. But one doesn’t have to agree with that to accept that, because Obama took this approach, he ended up with a non-treaty. And non-treaties lack the imprimatur and broad-based acceptance that treaties, by design, tend to enjoy. If the president wanted his arrangement to be more permanent, he should have gone to the Senate. And if he didn’t go precisely because he knew the Senate would say no, then he knew all along he was building on sand. Whose fault is that, pray? His successor’s?
A related talking point holds that by “unilaterally” leaving the agreement, President Trump has acted as arrogantly as did President Obama. This, too, is nonsense. Our system would be ludicrous if it permitted President A to put in place deals on his own, but required President B to gain the acquiescence of Congress in order to withdraw from those deals. Obama set this deal up on a discretionary basis. It can, quite obviously, be nixed on the same terms. Indeed, there is far more justification for reversing unilateral actions unilaterally than there is for taking them in the first place. To equate a president unilaterally nuking a constitutionally questionable unilateral decision with a president taking a constitutionally questionable unilateral decision is akin to equating the man who returns a stolen car with the man who stole it in the first place. I am as staunch a critic of the imperial presidency as you’ll find. I am, at root, a legislative supremacist. But we will not get very far in that aim if presidents giving up stolen power is itself held to be an arrogation.