BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. PRESIDENT BUSH: All options are on the table. HILLARY CLINTON: No option can be taken off the table. TOM TANCREDO: Anybody that would suggest that we should take anything like this off the table in order to deter that kind of event in the United States isn't fit to be President of the United States. RUDY GUILIANI: When I said I wouldn't take the option off the table – [OFF-MIKE COMMENTS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: “On the table” — it's a phrase we've been hearing a lot this summer from the President and the presidential candidates. This week, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had a public spat over whether or not nukes should be on or off the table.
And in June, all of the Republican candidates, except Representative Ron Paul, agreed that using a nuclear bomb against Iran, to stop it from developing nuclear bombs, must remain a viable option or “on the table.”
But what does that phrase really mean and what are its consequences? James Walsh is a research associate in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says we should expect to hear much more about the table in the months to come. JAMES WALSH: If “WMD” was the language phrase of 2003, “on the table” has to be the foreign policy phrase of this election year. This table has magical properties. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Once you're on the table, nothing can ever be taken off. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So has the rhetoric been noticeably different among the Democratic candidates? JAMES WALSH: Absolutely not. The Democratic side has also endorsed the table. One exception came last week when Senator Barack Obama — he said he would take the use of nuclear weapons off the table in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he was immediately criticized in a New York Minute by his chief rival, Hillary Clinton. She's trying to paint him as being inexperienced and naive, and she used this as an occasion to say, well, I wouldn't make any statements about the use or non-use of nuclear weapons in a general way. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I understand you can give a concise summary of the rules currently in place for the creation and use of nuclear weapons. Can you really do that? JAMES WALSH: [LAUGHS] We have the system in place, the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and we have a bargain. And part of the bargain is most countries of the world agree not to get nuclear weapons. And the ones that get to keep them for a while, like the U.S., Russia, France and China, one of the things they promise not to do is go around threatening countries who don't have them.
You're really only supposed to use nuclear weapons according to the International Court of Justice, to deter a nuclear attack from another government. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're saying that in the Non-Proliferation Treaty there are rules about rhetoric, not just about the use of nuclear weapons? JAMES WALSH: Well when you threaten nuclear weapons, that is a form of use of nuclear weapons, at least in the nuclear world. If you go around telling a country, if you don't do what I tell you to do, I'm going to nuke you, that's considered crossing the line.
But you would never guess that from listening to the presidential candidates. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't it just part of the training of a politician to keep the deterrent power of nuclear weapons strong by not invoking phrases that take them off the table? JAMES WALSH: U.S. policymakers take things off the table all the time. I think in this case the question is, “Are you tough or not.” And those who seek to be tough want to keep everything on the table and then try to turn around and say to the others, oh, you're not tough enough, you're inexperienced, when really, that has no relationship at all to the real world.
If anything, when you go around saying, “Oh, yeah, I consider using nuclear weapons,” that has consequences. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example of the consequences. JAMES WALSH: If I'm Iran and then someone comes out and says, well, you know, the next President of the United States, if it's a Republican, he's promised that he will consider using nuclear weapons against us. We better not make Saddam's mistake. We better go ahead and get them now before the next Republican administration so that we can defend ourselves.
I think that's a very strong talking point for a bomb advocate in another country. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But is this rhetoric new? I mean, hasn't there been tough talk on this subject pretty much since the Cold War? JAMES WALSH: The problem is this is not the Cold War. We live in an age of terror where the whole proposition of nuclear weapons really has to be reconsidered. Earlier in the year, Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, former National Security Advisor under President Nixon - you had Max Kampelman, a nuclear negotiator for Ronald Reagan. You had Sam Nunn, who was a Democrat, very hawkish, very conservative on issues of defense and national security. These and others have joined together and wrote a very public Op-Ed earlier in the year saying, wait a minute, if a terrorist gets nuclear weapons, the fact that we have 1,000 or 2,000 isn't going to deter them.
These guys, you know, embraced the nuclear age when they were in office, and now say, in this new set of circumstances, we need to rethink the whole thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, those were simpler, happier times, weren't they? JAMES WALSH: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in your recent opinion piece, you wrote that keeping all the options on the table — that rhetoric seems to be inevitable from the candidates, but the response from the reporters doesn't have to be inevitable. Are you frustrated by questions unasked? JAMES WALSH: I am, because the presidential candidates get asked this question and then they intone, with that, you know, resonant voice of theirs, and say, “all options are on the table.”
Well, it would be nice if someone said, well, what exactly does that mean? I mean, is poison gas on the table? Is — can you take the family members of alleged terrorists and hold them hostage and begin shooting them one by one until a terrorist gives up? I mean is there anything that's not on the table?
And when you say it's on the table, how are these other countries who hear you saying that, how are they supposed to react? I mean, none of those questions get asked. They just get the ten-second sound bite and move onto the next topic. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wasn't it the President who got the ball rolling on the phrase, you know, “everything is on the table?” JAMES WALSH: I think "on the table" will go down with the word "strategery" as one of the great contributions to the discussion of national security. You'll remember President Bush, particularly in terms of Iran, was saying he would not take military action off the table. And then, of course, Condoleezza Rice and all the administration officials began to repeat the phrase.
And now “on the table” - I mean, I would like to see this table. This table must be huge, a huge table! BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much. JAMES WALSH: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Walsh is a research associate in international security at MIT.