Tuesday, President Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — better known as the Iran deal. I’m not going to go into depth on the wisdom or folly of this decision — there are better pundits than I on either side. I think my opinion will be clear. But I did want to address one aspect that I think is very important.
Let’s go back to the 2016 Presidential debates. I know, it’s traumatic, but let’s go back anyway. At one point, Trump said something that was actually insightful when asked about his past support for single payer healthcare:
As far as single payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland. It could have worked in a different age, which is the age you’re talking about here.
Now Trump was mostly weaseling, but he also stumbled upon an important aspect of the healthcare debate: path dependence. Our options are limited by the choices we have made in the past. The current healthcare system — with its overlapping programs and public-private mix — has incredible inertia. You can’t just go back in time to the 1970s and hit the reset button to get single payer. You have to deal with system we have now (which is, indeed, what Obamacare tried to do). Whether you think single payer is an awesome idea or a terrible idea, the opportunity to do it may have passed. And even if it hasn’t, the path to that is complex and difficult.
Path dependence is incredibly important in decision making and is probably the most ignored aspect of our political debate. A few other examples:
- Republicans talk about “slashing” spending as though we can undo the last few decades of spending growth with a magic wand.
- When Obama took office, many Dems thought this would restore our reputation in the world, as though the previous eight years had vanished in smoke.
- Gay marriage opponents believed that passing amendments would turn back the tide and return us to a pre-SSM state.
A great example right now can be seen in the wave of teachers’ strikes in various states. Critics of the unions are pointing out that the median teacher wage — around $58k a year with benefits — is hardly chicken feed. But the path dependence matters: teacher wages have fallen relative to the cost of living. The most important factor, as far as the teachers are concerned, isn’t necessarily the wage, but the changes to it. How they reached that wage matters.
It’s rare that you get — in politics or in life — the opportunity to truly revisit a decision in the purest sense. The most you can do is find a way to improve upon the situation you are currently in based on the decisions you have made.
Before any decision is made, there are many possible worlds we could live in. In this particular case, one where the Iran Deal was signed and one where it wasn’t. Once the decision has been made, however, we are locked into that world. We don’t get to go back and make the decision again. We can’t slide sideways in time into a world where we made a different decision. The possible worlds in front of us are limited by the worlds we closed off behind us.
To get away from metaphysics and back to concrete foreign policy: I supported the Iraq War initially but by 2008 had, like most people, become convinced it was a mistake. I was mixed, however, on the idea of withdrawing from Iraq. Because withdrawing from Iraq was not the same as having never invaded it in the first place. Their military was crushed, their dictator dead, ethnic and religious conflict rampant. Whether we should have left or not, we had to acknowledge that we would be leaving a vacuum (a vacuum that ISIS filled).
By the same token, let’s posit that the Iran Deal was a bad one. (I think it was middling, but that’s not the point.) Withdrawing from the Iran deal is not the same as never having made it in the first place. The sanctions from other countries — notably Russia — will not be put back in place immediately, if ever. The willingness of Iran to negotiate will not be the same after we have a withdrawn from a deal that every objective agency concludes they were complying with. The effects on Iran’s internal politics are unlikely to be in our favor. In short, today’s decision does not turn the clock back to 2015. It puts us into a new and, in my opinion, unfavorable circumstance.
There are a number of conservatives like Jeff Flake who opposed the deal in 2015 but oppose leaving it now. Conservative Twitter is calling them out for “hypocrisy”, but this is ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with having opposed the deal in 2015, when we had a united international front and heavy sanctions, but still concluding that leaving it now — with Iran compliant and the world against us — is a terrible idea. In fact, it’s a perfect illustration of path dependence: once you’ve made a poor decision you to have to deal with that decision, not the decision you wish had been made.
Was there a different course open for Trump? One could claim that the deal was poor, and work toward a better deal. This is indeed how we have done things in the past, mostly notably in the decades spent negotiating the Cold War away from the nuclear brink. Treaties were made, complied with, and slowly improved upon over the course of four decades. Would we have gotten better “deals” with the Soviet Union if each Administration had backed out of the agreement the previous ones had made? It certainly doesn’t seem like backing out of the ABM treaty improved things. The subsequent SORT agreement was one of the weakest in forty years.
Of course, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. It is certainly possible that backing out of JCPOA will bring Iran back to the table and wring out more concessions. And it is certainly possible that sticking to the deal would have resulted in a nuclear Iran. I have serious doubts about both of those scenarios.
But … we have now chosen a path and the dependence that comes with it. So when the next step in this passion play occurs, it will have to take that into account and decide whether restoring the broken deal gets us back to where we need to be or makes things worse. And that decision will need to be based on the world we live in then, and not on a desire to magically undo Trump’s actions.