Iran Decision Risks Diluting Trump’s Presidential Power

(Bloomberg) -- From the perspective of presidential power, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal seems to offer little upside and quite a bit of downside risk. 

The move adds all sorts of uncertainties, but doesn’t appear to satisfy any significant demands from Trump’s coalition. And it inflicts further damage on the president’s professional reputation, which has already been shredded by some of his other actions. The combination stands to make Trump an even weaker president than he already is.

I’ll leave substantive commentary about Trump’s decision to folks such as Nicholas Miller at the Monkey Cage, who argues that a new and better deal isn’t plausible. See also Dan Larison for a very negative view, and my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake with a modestly hopeful reaction

But what were the problems with leaving the deal in place in terms of presidential influence? At the mass level, virtually none. Voters are notoriously indifferent to foreign policy and national security with the exceptions of crises abroad, which can produce brief rally-around-the-flag approval bursts with few if any long-term effects, and high-casualty wars, which are almost always unpopular, especially when they drag on. Neither was a likely outcome from staying in the Iran agreement. To be fair, unless Trump really intends to engage the armed forces in a fight for regime change, it’s unlikely very many voters will care one way or another. Coverage of the decision might move Trump’s popularity up or down a little for a few days, but that’s about it.

It’s true that exiting the Iran deal has been a good applause line for Trump, as is portraying himself as sticking close to Israel. That doesn’t mean his strongest supporters would have punished him for staying in — just as they haven’t punished him for not building a border wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it. For most of his strong supporters, merely reasserting that he’s close to Israel and that President Barack Obama wasn’t would be more than sufficient.

Nonetheless, Trump is setting himself up to take the blame if Iran does go nuclear while he’s president. That might not cost him in public opinion, but he can’t be sure, and he may now be trapped into choosing between potentially unpopular military action and potentially unpopular inaction. That’s never a good place for a president to be. Had he remained in the agreement, the blame would have been far more widely shared if Iran broke out.

At the elite level there’s even more at stake.

By acting, Trump will make the relatively small group of Republican Iran hawks happy. That’s a real plus; he has rarely found allies among Republican foreign policy experts of any stripe. Unfortunately, he can only please them by alienating Republican foreign policy moderates, most neutral experts and European allies. Even worse, simply exiting the agreement is only the first step for Iran hawks, who opposed the deal in the first place precisely because they wanted to destabilize the regime, not (just) prevent it from going nuclear. Barring an implausible successful homegrown Iranian democratic revolution that produces a stable U.S.-friendly regime, Iran hawks are going to want more action. In the long run, there’s no way for Trump to keep them happy without risking more problems for him elsewhere.

More generally, pulling out of the Iran deal is one area where Trump could act virtually alone. But as Richard Neustadt argued, governing by decree, even when it is possible, tends to be costly to presidents both directly and indirectly. Directly because Trump wants to re-establish tough sanctions on Iran. But they won’t be effective unless other nations join in, and it seems very unlikely that Europe, let alone Russia or China, will go along. In fact, it’s likely that upsetting European allies will make it harder for Trump to succeed in his ambitions for better trade deals. 

And there could be a price to pay domestically. Presidential reputation matters. This isn’t the only agreement Trump is attempting to rewrite this week. His rescission package sent to Congress to cut spending is an effort to bulldoze over the budget deal Republicans and Democrats struck, and Trump signed, only a few months ago. But the president can’t act on his own on recission, and his cuts will probably be defeated. Still, as Neustadt said, everyone who has to deal with the president closely watches how he goes about his job. He raises the price he’ll have to pay for future deals each time he acts as if he isn’t bound by an agreement; only a fool would agree to something with Trump without making it extremely difficult for him to back out later or attempt to shirk his obligations.

There’s more to the presidency than self-interest and maximizing influence, of course. Neustadt said, however, that presidents often find the best policy course by seeking to build their own power. One way or another, it seems Trump has once again failed to protect his own influence, and therefore he risks weakening his presidency one more time. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at

  1. It seems to me that exiting the deal also makes it far more likely Iran will go nuclear, but many supporters of the decision disagree, so I'll leave that argument aside. If it's true, however, then that's another reason Trump's decision is risky for him.

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