The frequent American and Israeli threat could actually be a bit softer than you might think.
American and Israeli officials repeat the phrase "all options are on the table" with Iran so often it sounds like a ritual incantation. But what does it mean? When Washington makes a promise or threat, it carefully decides how clear it wants to be. Plain and transparent language means that the words are more credible. But the downside is that a president must follow through on the commitment or lose face and credibility -- potentially trapping a president into war. By contrast, ambiguous language isn't very credible, but also carries little risk of entrapment.
To understand the meaning of "all options are on the table," let's compare it with other kinds of promises that Washington makes. We can call these commitments "defense conversations," or DEFCON for short (yes, that's a different DEFCON than the "defense readiness condition" with which you might be familiar). At DEFCON 5, American promises are vague and ambiguous. At DEFCON 1, Washington offers crystal-clear language you can take to the bank. So where does "all options are on the table" fall? Here is a range of this and other U.S. statements:
DEFCON 5At DEFCON 5, Washington is extremely nebulous about what would trigger U.S. military action, or what this action might involve. Presidents keep their cards close to their chest because they don't want to commit to anything. In 2010, when North Korea attacked a South Korean warship, Hillary Clinton said that "provocative actions have consequences," but it was "premature" to say what these consequences might be.
Similarly, in 2012, Clinton warned Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop killing Syrian civilians or face, "serious consequences." That was in April -- and the civilians are still dying.
At DEFCON 4, Washington is slightly clearer in its threats, accepting some risk of entrapment in return for greater credibility. A good example is the phrase du jour, "all options are on the table." It's less ambiguous than "serious consequences" because it focuses attention on one particular option -- military force -- and says this alternative is receiving more consideration than the opponent might think.
But "all options are on the table" is still very hazy with a low degree of commitment. It's a furniture metaphor after all. And it's also essentially a double negative: the military option hasn't been removed.
When the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg asked Obama to explain the phrase "all options are on the table," the president said the Israelis, Americans, and Iranians "understand it." But what they understand is that Obama is being deliberately vague.
DEFCON 3At DEFCON 3, presidents use language with significantly greater clarity and commitment. Rather than just saying the option of using force is on the table, they indicate that a military strike could become the preferred choice in certain scenarios.
Obama used DEFCON 3 language when he told the AIPAC conference: "Iran's leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." Taken at face value, this implies that if the choice were war or containing a nuclear-armed Iran, Washington would strike. Obama reinforced the message when he said: "as president of the United States, I don't bluff."
This language makes the American military threat more credible. But it also produces a greater risk of entrapment. If Iran ultimately gets the bomb, these words will be thrown back at Obama. The president would pay a political price, and the country's reputation could also suffer. We were bluffing after all. The reluctance to pay this price could become a powerful argument in favor of war. Of course, the penalty for retreating is precisely what makes the words more credible in the first place.
But Obama deliberately left himself some wiggle room. An Iran with a nuclear bomb cannot be contained. But how about an Iran with the capability to make a bomb? Many analysts think that Tehran wants the capacity to construct a bomb without actually following through -- and in this scenario, Obama would have some room for maneuver.
DEFCON 2Hawkish Republicans want the United States to escalate to DEFCON 2 language, with much stronger clarity and commitment. Here, Washington would threaten to use force if Iran crosses clearly specified red lines. But there's still some ambiguity about exactly how we would respond. Rick Santorum, for example, argued that the United States should offer Iran a "clear ultimatum" to dismantle its nuclear facilities, or we would "tear them down ourselves."
DEFCON 1DEFCON 1 language is clear-cut and unmistakable -- and therefore carries the strongest credibility and the greatest risk of entrapment. Presidents spell out precisely what will happen if the opponent carries out certain actions.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, for example, President Kennedy said, "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." It doesn't get much clearer than that.
Naturally, presidents use DEFCON 1 language with great care. Failing to follow through on the threat could carry a very heavy price. This means they're either willing to act, or, as with Kennedy, they don't think the scenario will ever arise. After all, why would the Soviets launch nuclear weapons from Cuba against a Western Hemisphere country other than the United States?
Overall, Obama's foreign policy has been quite cautious about the use of force, with the president favoring surgical military operations. But by switching to DEFCON 3 language on Iran, he calculated that the gains in credibility offset the risks of entrapment. Republicans want to escalate the commitment further. DEFCON 2 language could coerce Iran into making concessions that would avoid war. It could also trap a president into a war he didn't want. Words matter. If the pen is mightier than the sword, so is the teleprompter.
Dominic Tierney is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. His latest book is The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.