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The other problem with the Iran nuclear deal

We should worry that Congress won’t exercise its power to check the executive branch.

R.J. Matson cartoon on Congressional leaders' response to

R.J. Matson cartoon on Congressional leaders' response to Donald Trump. Credit: CQ Roll Call / R.J. Matson

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal, is history — at least as far as the United States is concerned. That’s both a good thing and a bad one.

The nuclear deal was a bad one. The problem wasn’t just the deal itself, but the ideas behind it. President Barack Obama wanted the deal so that Iran could become a “very successful regional power.” That’s not in our interests, nor in the interests of anyone else in the region — apart from the Syrian tyranny of Bashar al-Assad and the terrorists of Hezbollah.

So I’m delighted that President Donald Trump has deep-sixed the deal. Of course, killing a deal is not a strategy, and while the sanctions the United States will reimpose are a necessary part of a strategy, they’re not sufficient — especially since we can rely on the EU, the Russians, and the Chinese to protest and circumvent them.

What troubles me about Trump’s withdrawal is precisely that he could do it on his own. He could do that, in turn, because Obama did the deal on his own — as a non-binding agreement.

Obama took that route because he knew the deal would never make it through Congress. The same is true of the Paris climate accord, the other big piece of Obama-era Trump roadkill.

It’s not clear whether the nuclear deal should have been a treaty, but the Paris accord should have been. The State Department has an admirable process for deciding what can be done on the president’s authority, and what should be a treaty. Obama just didn’t follow the process.

But even if Obama had done the nuclear deal as a treaty, Trump could still have pulled out of it. So this isn’t a question of law. Obama didn’t do anything illegal by entering into the nuclear deal, and Trump didn’t do anything illegal by pulling out of it. It’s more serious than that.

If you’re the president and you want the United States to make an enduring international commitment, you need to get buy-in from the political system. That means taking your case to the Senate — and the House — and winning votes, be it on a treaty, a law, or a resolution.

The easy rebuttal to this argument is that politics today are too partisan — or, as Obama might have put it, Republicans are too unreasonable — for the president to be able to do this. Even if true, that’s no answer: unreasonable partisans (on both sides) are part of the system.

But it’s not true. Presidents just don’t want to be constrained. As far back as the early 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower won a bruising battle against the Bricker Amendment, which would have limited his ability to sign treaties. What has happened is that Congress has increasingly given in to the president.

Take trade. The Constitution gives the power to regulate foreign trade to Congress. But Congress has outsourced that power to the executive branch, and Trump has used it — and spurious national security justifications — to impose tariffs on steel, aluminum and much more.

There’s no substantive difference between what Obama did in Paris and Tehran and what Trump has done on trade: they both relied on presidential power alone to make major shifts in U.S. foreign policy. It didn’t work for Obama, and it won’t work for Trump.

Congress didn’t like Obama’s foreign policies, and it doesn’t like Trump’s trade policy. Yet in practice, it submits to its emasculation by refusing to take seriously its constitutional obligation to hold the executive to account. Congress could stop the executive. It chooses not to.

I’m glad we’re out of the Iran deal. But the power to take us out is ultimately no different from the power to take us in. And I don’t want any president to have that kind of power.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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