Sunday, July 13, 2008

Options on the Table

This is a simple attempt to get a new phrase, meme, talking point -- call it what you will -- out into the world. I've never seen anyone advocate it or suggest it before, although if someone has, that's great, since the point is to get people saying it and thinking it.

There's a ritual invocation now said by American politicians across the spectrum that "all options are on the table". What they mean by this, of course, is that military action is on the table -- usually that unilateral military action is on the table. After all, Bush and McCain have been pretty explicit about taking diplomatic talks between the US President and high-level Iranian leaders off the table -- which would be covered in the normal usage of "all options" (that is, when non-politicians use the phrase). (There's a good recent analysis of this phrase, this idea and this possibility here.)

"All options" is a phrase that thinly veils a threat of force -- aggressive force, force against a weaker adversary who has not attack us -- within what purports to be simple open-mindedness. Who's against keeping all options open? It sounds, in principle, so reasonable. (Of course, as I just noted, Bush and McCain are against keeping all options open: they're closing off some types of diplomacy. But that's not brought up in this context.) Which is one reason that it's said equally by people on the left as the right -- Obama (and Clinton, and everyone else) constantly say they want to "keep all options on the table" too.

It's a way to threaten that sounds like simple reasonableness, simple open-mindedness. Anyone who objects to the threat can be made to seem like they are (narrow-mindedly, dogmatically, prematurely) closing off options.

The reason that politicians of all stripes repeat it so often is because, in this framework, it works. It's effective. It's a good meme (even if it's a very bad idea).

So here's a counter-meme. One designed to work on its own, but also -- more importantly -- to try to render the currently common meme ineffective. The idea here is rhetorical counter-punching. If this doesn't work, maybe someone will suggest something better. But here's my idea.

I think we should always keep all legal options on the table. The key here is the clear but not-sufficiently-mentioned fact that an aggressive war (including its subcategory, preventative war) is illegal -- at least under international law.*

But rather than emphasizing the prudence, morality, efficacy or other virtues of not committing aggressive acts of war -- virtues that, in our current political culture, are far too often dismissed as wimpy or impractical or quaintly outmoded or whatever -- it emphasises the issue of legality, which everyone still pays at least lip service too.

It thereby removes disastrous options from the "table" in a way that's harder for war proponents to criticize. If one were to say, "we should keep all non-military options on the table", the reply would be, "you're too wimpy to use force." But if one were to say "we should keep all legal options on the table", what would the reply be? "No, I think illegal options should be on the table too?"

Actually, I suspect, if it became common enough the response would be a direct attack on the notion that aggressive wars are illegal -- at least for the United States. But I think this would be a good thing, or at least a better situation than we have now. It force out into the open the idea now assumed in our political discourse, namely, that the U.S. has the right to attack whomever it wants to, but that attacks by other countries (or at least non-authorized attacks) are illegal and immoral - are aggression.

"All legal options" underlies the criminality of aggressive war, while also removing it from the possibility set in a way that is perhaps rhetorically (and not just morally or prudentially) defensible in today's political climate.

There's more to say on this, perhaps, but let's leave it there for now. Pass it around: let's see if it can catch on.

Iran: all legal options are on the table.

And no others.

* Do any lawyers out there know if American law rules out aggressive use of force? (In theory, I mean, regardless of how things are de facto.) My guess would be that we've signed UN conventions, treaties, etc, that outlaw it, which would make it American law too, but haven't passed any individual laws to that effect. But I don't actually know.

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