Thursday, June 21, 2007

Off the table. In the pocket.

I've been thinking lately about the use of the term "off/on the table" when discussing the use of military force against Iran. There are those who argue that it is a position of weakness to take the military option "off the table" and that keeping it "on the table" just adds necessary pressure on the Iranian regime to make concessions on its nuclear development. On the other side there are those who argue that keeping the military option on the table, aside from being impractical (do we really have much in the way of viable military options in Iran?), it is also beligerant. It tells Iran that we aren't really serious about negotiations and are really more interested in just bullying others into doing what we want.

I've come to the conclusion that there is a fundamental miscommunication between the "leave our options open" side and the "don't act beligerant" side. The problem is in the very metaphor itself. When you say that something is "off the table", what do you really mean? Do you mean that the option will NEVER be exercised (or, as critics like to say, that you are going into negotiations with one arm tied behind your back)? Or does it mean that you don't want to put the option in play at this time because doing so would needlessly aggravate negotiations.

Think of it this way, just because something is off the table doesn't mean it isn't in your pocket.

During the Cold War, American and the Soviets had thousands of missiles targeted on each others cities. The missiles were "on the table". After the Cold War ended both America and Russia agreed to de-target their missiles. Did this mean they were agreeing never to use them? No, they were just taking them off the table and "putting them in their pocket". The missiles could, with very little effort, be re-targeted if need be (indeed, Putin hinted at this during the recent dust-up over a missile shield in eastern Europe.)

It is a mistake to interpret "off the table" as equivalent to a pacifist position. That so many seem to interpret it as such is perhaps an indication that it is a flawed metaphor that should be retired.

BTW, the discussion of presidential impeachment is also hampered by misunderstandings over this metaphor. Nancy Pelosi assumed the speakership saying that impeachment was "off the table" for this session of Congress. Some interpreted that to mean that she would actively oppose any effort to pursue impeachment, even if it were overwhelmingly shown to be the proper course of action. But if "off the table" meant "in the pocket" for Pelosi, then she was simply saying that the Democrats wouldn't use impeachment as a negotiation chip in discussions with the White House but that the option would always be available if it was needed. I argued at the time (and still do) that a better metaphor would have been to say that impeachment was "not on the agenda". This would reassure people that the Democrats weren't interested in a tit-for-tat witch hunt that would derail all other legislative efforts but leave it clear that impeachment would always remain an option.

(This train of thought was inspired by this post from Ezra).

Oh, one more point on metaphors. This topic reminds me of a lesson I learned early in the experience of raising our children: never make a threat that you aren't willing to follow through on and always follow through on your threats. The "on the table" metaphor, unfortunately, sounds to much like a threat and not the "just keeping the option in reserve" that some people seem to think it is. In other words, if you put something "on the table" it means that you are seriously considering using it.

This is especially true with this administration that has a demonstrated record of using whatever weapons it puts "on the table" early in the negotiations. So a Bush administration putting the military option "on the table", in light of experience, sounds like a near 100% certainty that they will eventually use it. Bush has changed the way the game is played and its about time our more serious pundits realized this.

The rest of the world certainly has.


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