“…at the water’s edge”

More than seventy years ago, Arthur Vanderberg, then the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously asserted that partisan politics should stop “at the water’s edge.” Those are words worth remembering in these fractious times.  In particular, they ought to be remembered by Democrats when they criticize Pres. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Pres. Trump has called it the worst deal of all time.  And there certainly does seem to be a very troubling asymmetry when one party to a deal (Iran) receives virtually all of the benefits at the outset—unfreezing of very substantial financial assets, access to the world financial system, investments from foreign countries—while the contra parties (the U.S., the U.K., France, China, Russia, and Germany) receive nothing more at the outset than Iran’s promise that it will adhere to certain rules over a period of more than a decade.

A fairer, more sensible agreement would gradually and incrementally provide the promised benefits to Iran over the same time-period during which it is supposed to perform its own obligations.  That way, both Iran and the contra parties would have to wait for more than a decade to receive all the benefits of the deal.

Simply because of that asymmetry, and leaving aside other objections—it does not, e.g., even purport to restrict Iran’s long-range missile program or its support for terrorist groups around the world—I believe reasonable minds can disagree as to whether it was a good thing for the Obama administration to accept the deal in the first place, and whether Pres. Trump acted wisely in withdrawing.

But, however one comes down on the wisdom of the decision to withdraw, every American, and particularly every American who is an elected member of our federal government, ought to avoid mischaracterizing Trump’s decision in a way that gives ammunition to enemies of the U.S.  Regrettably, some senior Democratic politicians have been providing that ammunition.

One day after Trump’s announcement, Sen. Ben Cardin (D. Md.), senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published a blog in The Times of Israel, headed: “I voted against the Iran nuclear deal; withdrawing from it is a mistake”.

He presents various arguments for staying in the deal—these are the kinds of issues about which, as I have said, reasonable minds can differ.  But the senator also asserts:

“President Trump has breathed air into Tehran’s inevitable argument to the international community: We kept our end of the deal, but America is not good for its word and cannot be trusted. It is in fact America who has violated its obligations under the deal.”

Sen. Cardin also writes:

“[W]ithin the month President Trump is expected to sit down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as part of the international effort to denuclearize the Korean peninsula…. Our friends and partners will understandably approach this important endeavor more cautiously now given Mr. Trump’s decision to violate US obligations under the Iran nuclear deal. Will the US keep its word this time?”

What is very disturbing about these comments is that they seem to accept and even endorse the anti-American spin that the U.S. withdrawal proves that America does not keep its word and cannot be trusted.  The withdrawal proves no such thing.

Sen. Cardin well knows that America, as a nation, makes a binding promise to other nations only when America enters into a TREATY, pursuant to Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which requires the concurrence of two-thirds of the senators.  Pres. Obama never submitted the Iran deal to the Senate for approval as a treaty, because he calculated that it would not receive the necessary two-thirds approval.

Nevertheless, Pres. Obama proceeded as if he could bind the U.S. to the deal, notwithstanding that it had never been approved by the Senate as a treaty.  He pretended that he was committing the nation, when he was committing only his administration.  That is the nub of the problem: the Obama administration’s pretense that it could bind succeeding administrations, when it had failed to achieve a truly binding treaty.

Senator Cardin knows full well that “America” never gave its word to abide by the Iran deal—only the Obama administration gave its word.  So, instead of implicitly accepting the anti-American spin that our country can’t be trusted to keep its word, he ought to be taking pains to underline that America, as a nation, never gave its word.

Of course, Sen. Cardin is a Democrat, and he would at least implicitly be criticizing a former Democratic president if he were to point out that the Obama administration never even submitted the Iran deal to the Senate for approval as a treaty.  I’m sure a Democratic senator is reluctant to criticize a former Democratic president who still enjoys popularity, particularly in his own party.  Still, one would hope that Sen. Cardin’s loyalty to the country would trump (to coin a phrase) his loyalty to party.

Pres. Trump may have made a good or a bad decision in withdrawing from the Iran deal—that is a matter of opinion.  But, one thing we know for sure is that, in withdrawing, he certainly did not cause the U.S. to break its word or to violate its obligations.  Pres. Trump has the power to withdraw because Pres. Obama did not make the deal into a treaty; he never even attempted to do so.  If other nations did not understand that the Obama administration could not bind succeeding U.S. administrations, it is because the Obama administration falsely pretended that it could.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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