Stephen M. Walt

Why Do We Keep Insisting That Use of Force Be ‘On the Table’?

One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it’s most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. ...

Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it’s most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. relationship with Iran, but that’s hardly the only place where we are constantly being reminded about the need to keep our powder dry and our finger on the trigger.

The more I think about it, however, the dumber that expression sounds. Why? Because for the United States, the option of using military force is always on the table, especially when we’re dealing with weak states like Iran. After all, since the end of the Cold War the United States has used force over and over: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Serbia, and a host of other places too. We’ve fired cruise missiles, Hellfires, and other sophisticated chunks of ordnance at a wide variety of targets, and you could add Special Forces operations and computer viruses (e.g., Stuxnet) to the list.

Of course, people do not use this admonition to keep force "on the table" in a serious or sophisticated fashion; it’s just an easy way for politicians and pundits to show they’re tough-minded and not averse to using the pointed end of the stick. In other words, it’s a way to maintain your inside-the-Beltway street cred. But it’s really a meaningless phrase, because countries like Iran (and others) are well aware that the option of using force is right there and could be used if U.S. leaders ever decided it would accomplish a genuine positive purpose.

In fact, this constant insistence that force must be "on the table" also reveals a pervasive blindness about how the United States looks to others. People repeat this phrase because they seem to think that other countries see the United States as a feckless wimp that will never do anything to harm them and that our politicians need to rattle sabers and bluster just to get other countries’ attention. News flash: That’s not how the rest of the world sees Uncle Sam these days. In reality, everybody knows the United States is still very powerful — the sequester notwithstanding — and other countries are well aware of the frequency with which we’ve been blowing things up in different places for the past 20 years. Our politicians may be trying to remind U.S. voters that they are willing to use force, but the rest of the world hardly needs to be told at this point.

In the vast majority of cases — including Iran — the use of force makes no sense because it won’t advance U.S. policy goals and could in fact make things worse. And the only way to give the option of using force more coercive bite is to make it look like we are really about to use it, either by issuing an ultimatum (with a strict time limit) or by mobilizing forces in a highly visible way so that it really looks like we’re coming. But that tactic has obvious risks: If the target doesn’t capitulate and do our bidding, either we have to follow through with an attack we may not really want to launch or we pay the political costs of issuing a threat and then backing down. Issuing overt military threats is also a really good way to destroy the current coalition that is pressuring Iran and the absolutely best way to convince Iran that it has no choice but to sprint across the nuclear threshold as quickly as it can.

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. If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we’re not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won’t accomplish much and we probably couldn’t overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won’t exercise either option?

In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of "nonaggression" pact. Such pledges are never ironclad, however, and U.S. and Iranian officials both say they will judge each other not by words but by actions. The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that’s going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It’s a tricky problem, but isn’t it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?

In the end, the real issue is whether potential adversaries can resolve the political issues that might bring the use of force into play. The option to use it is always right there on the table — especially for the United States — but most states don’t worry about this very much because the political differences between them and us aren’t serious enough to warrant a military response. The bottom line: We would get further in our efforts to resolve some of our differences with others if U.S. politicians and commentators weren’t constantly reminding them that we have oodles of military power lying right there on the table ready to be used. I mean: It’s not like Iran doesn’t know that already.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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