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Setting the Table, with All the Options

By Peter Dyer
May 3, 2007

Editor's Note: "Tough-guyism" is arguably the dominant ideology of Washington, crossing many other ideological fault lines. Republicans and Democrats alike play to the voters with tough talk without regard to how all that bellicosity might play abroad. One of the favorite tough-guy slogans is that "all options are on the table," which some nations might interpret as a nuclear threat or at least as saber-rattling from the world's preeminent military power.

In this guest essay, Peter Dyer argues that the tough talk harms U.S. national interests by cementing America's image as a lawless state:

There is a consensus among American foreign policy makers and  major presidential candidates: “All options are on the table.” This phrase has been repeated so often by so many that it is now a cliche.

It seems reasonable enough. When faced with a problem, most of us would like to have at our disposal any and all tools available to remedy the problem.

But what do these words really mean when used by the most powerful people in the world’s most powerful country? The bland lanaguage of the cliche masks its implicit terror.

It is a simple, blanket assumption of unconditional power: we can do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want, however we want to do it, as often as we want, and for whatever reasons we want.

“All options are on the table” sums up the reckless, arrogant, lawless and short-sighted American assumption that seemingly remains intact even after four years of catastrophe in Iraq: that the United States has the right to invade and occupy any country at all, whether or not we have ever been harmed or even threatened with harm by that country.

President Bush, the major Republican candidates and “opposition” candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are of one mind on this critical issue. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the next American president will continue to treat with contempt the most fundamental of international legal and moral precepts: that it is forbidden to start a war.

The United States has signed and ratified numerous treaties to which we are legally bound by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which unequivocally prohibit aggressive war. Chief among them are the United Nations Charter and the Nuremberg Charter.

Consider the language of the Nuremberg Charter (Section II, Article 6):

“The following acts, or any of them, are crimes coming within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal for which there shall be individual responsibility: (a) Crimes Against Peace: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression...”

The language of the major Democratic presidential candidates, unfortunately, is equally clear: just as with Iraq, the law will not restrict our “options” with Iran.

John Edwards: “To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table. Let me reiterate -- all options must remain on the table....” (Jan. 22 2007, speaking via satellite to the Herzliya Conference in Israel)

Hillary Clinton: “We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons....In dealing with this threat ... no option can be taken off the table." (International Herald Tribune, Feb. 1, 2007, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee)

Barack Obama: “I think we should keep all options on the table...” (Feb. 11, 2007, answering "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft’s question: “Would you advocate the use of military force to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?”)

A nuclear first strike, chemical and biological attacks, mass slaughter of civilians and destruction of infrastructure are, apparently, on the table. Despite the consequences of the “conventional” war of aggression in Iraq, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the creation of four million refugees, these options are still on the table as well.

No crimes against peace, war crimes or crimes against humanity have yet been ruled out by a major American presidential candidate.

It would be refreshing to hear the next President display enough leadership to cross any one of these “options” off his or her list.

Unfortunately, nobody with a realistic chance of winning the next election has shown the minimal decency and courage needed to take an unequivocal stand against these horrors.

Shame on them.

Peter Dyer is a journalism student who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at [email protected] .

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