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The Problem With Saying That “All Options Are On the Table”

Stephen Walt points out how useless and redundant it is for American leaders to say that military action is “on the table”:

Given the many options that America’s vast military power creates, the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to convince others that force is off the table.

As I mentioned a few times during the Syria debate in response to a number of silly “credibility” arguments, the danger is not that other states will cease to believe U.S. military threats, but that they will assume that the U.S. means to attack them or topple their rulers sooner or later no matter what the U.S. says right now. It is harder for authoritarian governments to believe that they are not the next target for regime change when the U.S. has used force to overthrow three governments in one decade, and it doesn’t help that there is a significant constituency in the U.S. in favor of doing exactly that in Syria and Iran. It is only too easy nowadays for pariah governments to perceive the U.S. as constantly hostile and prone to using force to get its way. They are already inclined to assume the worst about U.S. intentions, and the U.S. has resorted to using force often enough in the last two decades that it is surprising when it “fails” to do so. One can scarcely find an example in modern times when the U.S. threatened military action and did not follow it up with at least limited airstrikes.

Then again, the main reason that politicians feel obliged to say that military action against this or that government is “on the table” is so that they will be perceived as sufficiently hawkish by hard-line activists and pundits. It reflects the perverse understanding of “prudence” in much of our foreign policy debate that ruling out military action is the improper and dangerous thing to do. It is also a product of the overwhelming bias in these debates in favor of “action,” which is frequently defined as some form of military action.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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