This is interesting less on the policy merits than as an early skirmish in the coming Bush-Walker primary war. Question: Should a new Republican president be prepared to tear up the Iran agreement and maybe act militarily on Inauguration Day 2017, or should he wait a few months until his cabinet’s in place before making any heady decisions?
Before you answer, remember that Iran is getting its sanctions relief up front. Anything the next president does to try to “roll back” Obama’s grand sellout and return the two sides to the current status quo will fail, by design, since there’s almost no chance the Europeans will reinstate their own sanctions in the future absent strong evidence that Iran has cheated on the deal in a material way.
The dispute started July 17, when Bush responded to a question at a town hall in Carson City, Nevada. A voter asked Bush to explain the differences between the Obama administration’s handling of Iran and his own, had he been president. Bush gave an exhaustive and highly critical assessment of Obama’s failings and offered, at the end, a promise of sorts. “One thing that I won’t do is just say, as a candidate, ‘I’m going to tear up the agreement on the first day.’ That’s great, that sounds great but maybe you ought to check in with your allies first, maybe you ought to appoint a secretary of state, maybe secretary of defense, you might want to have your team in place, before you take an act like that.”…
At a press conference after his appearance at the Family Leader Summit here Saturday, Walker was asked if he thinks Bush is wrong. “He may have his opinion. I believe that a president shouldn’t wait to act until they put a cabinet together or an extended period of time,” Walker said. “I believe they should be prepared to act on the very first day they take office. It’s very possible – God forbid, but it’s very possible – that the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office. And I don’t want a president who is not prepared to act on day one. So, as far as me, as far as my position, I’m going to be prepared to be president on day one.”…
Walker believes that even if the process of unraveling the deal is long and complicated, it’s important to begin immediately up taking office. And he believes that announcing his intentions in advance will put the Iranian regime on notice that the deal they’re celebrating today may not last. There is concern among Walker advisers that by refusing to say he’d work to reverse the deal on day one, Bush is adding to the sense among foreign policy thinkers that the deal cannot be undone, even partially. This undercuts Republicans in Congress, they say, who are now preparing to fight to roll the deal back, at least in the limited way that Congress can affect it.
Skeptics of Walker’s argument say it’s not only impractical to end the deal abruptly with a new president, but it may not be desirable. By January 2017, they argue, Iran will have earned many of the most significant benefits of the agreement – substantial sanctions relief, preservation of its nuclear infrastructure, international approbation as a member of the community of nations. Ending the deal, the argument goes, will relieve the Iranian regime of any obligation to abide by its terms and allow them to accelerate the pace of their march toward a bomb. The beginning of a new administration provides an opportunity to huddle with allies to assess the implementation of the deal and Iranian behavior more broadly.
Walker wasn’t speaking specifically about Iran there; his point was that a new president needs to be ready for any natsec threat the moment he’s sworn in. But given the context of Bush’s comments and the fact that foreign policy news has been dominated by Iran the past week, it’s clear enough what he’s suggesting. This sounds to me like one of those disagreements that tend to pop up in primaries where two candidates with verrrrry similar views on a policy try to sharpen up their differences by digging in on a proxy issue instead. Is the Iran agreement bad? Terrible, says Bush; awful, says Walker. Should it be rolled back? Most definitely, says Bush; you betcha, says Walker. When should it be rolled back? Aha — Walker wants to get cracking on January 20th, 2017 while Bush is content to wait until March 2017 or so, when his Secretaries of State and Defense have been confirmed. You can understand why they’d split on that point. Bush wants to show voters that he’s more deliberate on foreign interventions than his brother was — even though George W. waited weeks after 9/11 to invade Afghanistan and then waited for an AUMF from Congress before going to the UN on Iraq. Walker, meanwhile, wants to reassure righties concerned about his lack of foreign policy expertise that he’s so on the ball when it comes to Iran, so keenly aware of the danger that nuclearization poses, that he’d be prepared to skip the inauguration balls if need be to plan an air attack instead. Essentially, he’s signaling knowledge and competence here by stressing his commitment to early action.
Here’s my question: If backing out of the Iran deal unilaterally in January 2017 will (a) achieve little except to reimpose U.S. sanctions, which Iran can tolerate, (b) irritate European leaders, who’ll be angry to see the new administration upsetting the status quo that will have held by that point for nearly two years, and (c) give Iran a reason to argue that, with the U.S. in breach, it’s no longer obliged to comply with UN nuclear inspectors, why would a new president insist on doing it on day one? Why not have a courtesy huddle with Germany, France, and the UK first, as that would at least mitigate the second problem I just mentioned? You’re going to need their help in containing Putin and organizing any exciting new Middle Eastern/north African interventions during the next president’s term. The new president’s not going to order a huge attack on Iran right out of the chute either, unless Tehran’s already been caught cheating egregiously and Obama left office dithering about how to punish them for it. No new C-in-C will want to squander their honeymoon period with the public by launching a major war in the first days or weeks of taking office, especially without getting the lay of the land regionally from key advisors first. The hard fact of the matter is that the Iran deal is like ObamaCare in that, realistically, the only plausible time to stop it is before it’s been implemented — and that’s extra difficult in this case because, as far as the UN and European powers are concerned, it’s already been implemented. Bush and Walker should lay this squabble aside and concentrate on calling for Congress to block the deal. That won’t solve America’s problem of Europe breaking away to grant its own sanctions relief to Iran, but it would prevent America’s defection from the deal later from being needlessly postponed and, with Obama still in office, it would force a bipartisan approach to dealing with Iran over the next 18 months.