President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord produced an extraordinary moment in Washington, with an American leader keeping faith with his supporters even as he broke faith with America’s allies – and with a president keeping his campaign promise even as he broke precedent with U.S. history.
Those enigmatic combinations have been the hallmark of the Trump tenure, with the President a gyroscope possessed of his own inertial guidance system and free to alter his direction. This was never so evident as it was Tuesday, when he described Iran as “the leading state sponsor of terrorism” and vowed the “highest level of economic sanctions” against it.
The impact of Mr. Trump’s description of the accord as a “great embarrassment” struck with immediate force, although the implications of his withdrawal from the Iran pact – negotiated by former secretary of state John Kerry and endorsed by former president Barack Obama, a fact that in the current president’s mind almost certainly counted heavily against it – will take months, even years to discern. Here are some of those effects and their possible implications.
The Trump base bump
Mr. Trump railed against what he described as ‘’the worst deal ever negotiated,’’ and his action this week redeemed his campaign promise to withdraw from it. That characterization, remarkably similar to his description of the North American free-trade agreement as the ‘’single worst deal,’’ played well during the 2016 campaign among Americans who looked askance at establishment policy, especially in foreign affairs. Mr. Trump’s rejection of the agreement will surely please his political base even as it further alienates his opponents, including Republicans who, over the years, have played as much a role as Democrats in forming a national-security consensus in the U.S. capital and in academic circles across the country.
For that reason, Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran pact will likely have the effect of consolidating rather than altering public opinion. His supporters expected no less, and his opponents dreaded no more.
‘’The Trump supporters will cheer another rejection of the plodding, diplomatic status quo that was producing decline and was suggesting that weakness was strength,’’ Alex Castellanos, a Republican who was a top adviser to conventional Republican presidential nominees, such as Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, said in an interview. ‘’This was the Donald Trump his supporters voted for.’’ It is also the Donald Trump his rivals deplored.
The United States’ beleaguered Western allies
From Ottawa to Paris, London to Berlin, leaders of the United States’ strongest allies have embraced the Iran pact. And from each of those capitals, prime ministers and presidents have approached Mr. Trump gingerly, using awkward combinations of flattery and frippery to win his confidence and probe his mind. Those allies now are disappointed by Mr. Trump’s decision and possibly undermined at home by their failure to persuade him. French President Emmanuel Macron led a public charm offensive in Washington on the Iran issue that got him nothing except a phone call from Mr. Trump giving him advance word on his decision.
One traditional ally will be relieved: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose disclosure of secret Iranian nuclear documents almost certainly steeled Mr. Trump’s resolve – confirmation bias, perhaps, but a powerful factor nonetheless.
Even so, the Trump action represents a fundamental shift in the profile of U.S. presidents, who rarely retreat from world agreements. One recent exception occurred when George W. Bush announced in December, 2001, that he would leave the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but he did so after giving notice to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leader of the other signatory. Mr. Putin called the decision a mistake but immediately indicated that he was not substantially discomfited from it.
President Woodrow Wilson helped mould the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, insisting that the League of Nations be an indispensable part of the pact, but in a bitter Capitol Hill battle was unable to persuade the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the treaty. Although Canada was a founding member of the League and served on its vital council from 1927 to 1930, the United States did not join the Geneva-based organization.
‘’We missed out on a whole generation of international diplomacy in Europe,’’ said Patricia O’Toole, a Columbia University historian whose new biography of Mr. Wilson won rave reviews this spring. ‘’We were only involved on the sidelines, as observers.’’
The difference in the 99 years that have passed since the Senate rejection: The United States’ role in the world has moved from peripheral power to principal power.
None of the traditional U.S. allies, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, could have been surprised by the mid-afternoon announcement on the Iran pact, but the importance of relationships with Washington is so great that these world leaders, sadly confirmed in their assessments of the President, will continue to court Mr. Trump and count on the United States in other spheres.
North Korean impact
Mr. Trump’s rejection of the Iran deal will likely be an important factor in his looming negotiations on North Korean denuclearization with Kim Jong-un. His tough position will remind the North Korean leader that the U.S. President is willing to defy the voices prominent in the State Department, pressing for diplomatic solutions to nettlesome national-security threats. He said his actions against Iran displayed what he called a “critical message: The United States no longer makes empty threats.”
At the same time, however, the Trump decision may raise doubts about the President’s reliability, suggesting that if he is willing to remove the United States from one nuclear agreement (in the Middle East) he would not be reluctant to remove it from another (in Asia).
The President as Disruption-in-Chief profile
Once again, Mr. Trump has shown that he is willing, if not eager, to be a disruptive force, not only in Washington but also around the globe. His defiance of convention – his inclination to veer from the customary pathways of Washington and the world’s diplomatic corridors – has been the distinguishing characteristic of his 16 months in the White House.
Indeed, in less than a year and a half, Mr. Trump has broken with conventional thought on the Iran nuclear deal (applauded by many establishment diplomats and academic experts); on the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (promised by many of his predecessors but never actually implemented); on NAFTA (with roots in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, negotiated and signed in the George H. W. Bush years, and ratified in the Bill Clinton years); and on both the Paris climate-change pact and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (negotiated in the Obama years). In this context, the Iran decision is perfectly consistent with the President’s inclinations and actions.
Crazy like a fox?
Although discouraged by Mr. Trump’s decision, some Republicans believe the President may in the end have produced a positive result. ‘’This may be a win-win for Trump in the end,’’ said Mr. Castellanos, the Republican strategist. ‘’The European nations will stay in the treaty and keep up the pressure for nuclear inspections. The United States will pull out and impose sanctions and put economic pressure on one of the weaker economies in the world. The mullahs do not want an angry [Iranian] middle class. This may be the best good cop/bad cop routine ever.’’