For a man who likes to brag about what a big builder he is, President Donald Trump spends a lot of time burning stuff down.
From his pursuit of protectionist tariffs and withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, to his routine attacks on the norms of a liberal democracy, the developer from Queens has taken a wrecking ball to the United States’ place in the world, isolating us on the world stage, and marginalizing our moral voice.
Even his cherished wall, the one he promised the United States would build and that someone else - the American taxpayer, as it turns out - would pay for, remains frustratingly out of his grasp.
So it wasn’t a surprise Tuesday to find that Trump had taken a torch to the Iran nuclear deal, unraveling the signature foreign policy achievement of former President Barack Obama, and further straining relations with western European allies who had passionately lobbied the White House to stay in it.
Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan said Trump, driven either by rank ignorance, bald-faced malice, or some combination of the two, had dismantled the most significant arms-control deal in modern history.
Even worse, the administration premised its argument for withdrawal on at least two fraudulent claims.
First, that Iran is cheating on the deal. There’s no evidence to support that. If anything, Iran was complying with the terms of the agreement and, as Vox reports, it was giving inspectors the room they needed to do their jobs.
Second, Trump claimed the agreement required the United States to “pay” Iran $100 billion. Nope.
The United States froze that amount in Iranian assets, and the deal was conditional on returning them. That’s the carrot in this carrot-and-stick arrangement.
Trump’s move to kill the deal came despite the pleadings of French President Emmanuel Macron, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, dozens of past and former diplomats, and even House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who no one would confuse for a dove, Kaplan noted.
Right on schedule, Iranian officials announced that they’d negotiate with European leaders, the Chinese and Vladimir Putin’s Russia about staying in the deal.
As was the case with Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal from Syria, he opened another power vacuum that America’s geopolitical rivals will be only too happy to fill.
On its face, Trump’s announcement appeared to be less about securing any long-term foreign policy goal than it was about dominating the news cycle, proving to his base that he could deliver on campaign promise, and perhaps most importantly, sticking a finger in Obama’s eye.
In a statement, Obama called the withdrawal a “serious mistake.”
“Walking away from the [agreement] turns our back on America’s closest allies, and an agreement that our country’s leading diplomats, scientists, and intelligence professionals negotiated,” Obama said. “In a democracy, there will always be changes in policies and priorities from one Administration to the next. But the consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America’s credibility, and puts us at odds with the world’s major powers.”
The former president’s words were a refreshing blast of policy sobriety in the face of the standard Trumpian hyperbole that accompanied the White House’s announcement.
“This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” Trump said. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.”
The problem ladled on top of this short-sighted decision is what the withdrawal means for the upcoming summit with North Korea. We already know that its leader, Kim Jong Un, is pathologically incapable of keeping his word.
Will Trump’s withdrawal undermine whatever faith North Korea has in the United States keeping its word? That looming question could render the summit an elaborate bit of theater without any tangible result.
No one’s arguing that the current Iranian regime is a good one. That’s not what this is about. It’s about effectively keeping tabs on the nuclear ambitions of a dangerous rival.
“We know more about Iran’s program with the deal than without it,” former CIA director Michael V. Hayden told The Washington Post.
“The Iranians lie. They cheat,” Hayden told The Post. “That’s why you need to have the best possible verification regime in place.”
By scrapping the agreement, the White House has made it potentially easier for Iran to build weapons.
Trump may have scored a political win, but that’s a foreign policy loss by any measure.