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Politicians and military strategists are prone to talking about options. They say things like “all options are on the table,” or “we have no option but to….” When resistance started to develop around the “Punishment Option” for Syria, the president’s reaction was, essentially, “discussion is a good thing in a democracy; let’s have a discussion about whether to punish Assad for his (indubitable) use of chemical warfare.” He was calling for The Discussion Option.
What has this “discussion” turned out to be? Inside the United States, it consisted of leading figures of the Obama administration coming before Congressional committees to present the Obama administration’s slant on how awful Assad is and how he needs to be punished militarily by us. Simultaneously these same figures were all over the news talk shows presenting the Obama administration’s slant on how awful Assad is and how he needs to be punished militarily by us. Simultaneously, the president went to the G20 meeting and said how awful Assad is and how he needs to be punished militarily by us. His representatives also went to the Arab League and said how awful Assad is and how he needs to be punished militarily by us.
Simultaneously, the president was twisting legislators’ arms to vote his way. Our elected representatives were being pressured to vote against our wishes (see the next paragraph). The “discussion,” in other words, has turned out to be a one-way monologue, partly open, partly secret. Lately the president has spoken to the American public with the same message dressed in more flowery language: we are the saviors of world security; we cannot take on every evil but certainly we can attack the users of chemical weapons. Putting aside the hypocrisies, distortions and rhetoric, Obama presented us with the same message: I’m giving you the straight scoop. Accept it.
In the mean time, however, the U.S. people were having their own discussions. These have led the people to come to some pretty firm conclusions. Their sentiments have been registered through that de facto substitute for American Democracy – the public opinion polls. Through these polls it has became clear that the majority of the country is opposed to the president’s remedy of choice. While they are not happy with the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they have no desire to have their country’s military “punish Assad.”
Because of the monopoly of the attack dogs over the public space, the citizenry’s discussions took place almost entirely in private (and on certain select sites on the internet). Thus, it is not clear how the people arrived at this position. Perhaps it had to do with the recent experience of the quagmire known as Iraq. Perhaps it had to do with disbelieving their president and his establishment because of the Snowden revelations. But, whatever the reason, the consensus viewpoint was consistent: Stay out of the Syrian Civil War.
Similarly on the international front: the UN had been immediately ruled out by the pundits as “impossible,” the British Parliament voted “no,” many other governments were having none of it, as well. There quickly developed a veritable Coalition of the Unwilling.
Faced with international and domestic defeat, the president backed off from ferocity and is instead talking about diplomacy. Of course, it would be too much to expect him to say honestly that he is bowing to the will of the people of the U.S. and the world. So he has attempted to frame his change of stance as a victory for U.S. pressure on Assad, due to the threat of military force. But many see it for what it is: a presidential defeat and a people’s victory.
This is not the first time the president has made use of The Discussion Option. After the British Guardian began publishing articles based upon Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing, this country’s awareness of the NSA’s spying increased incrementally. This led us to start to mull over whether this was desirable, or even tolerable. After a while, the president opined that the role of the NSA was something about which there should be a nationwide discussion. We had, however, already begun talking about it without having received the president’s permission to do so. It was a case of the people leading the leader. It is telling that Obama has not taken much of a role in the discussion that he nominally called for, except in the sense that he is trying his best to seize the inaugurator of the discussion – Edward Snowden – in order that his Justice Department can prosecute and muzzle him.
As with Assad in Syria, Snowden is presented by the administration as one of the “bad guys”: he is a traitor, a megalomaniacal attention-seeker, and a hypocrite, who “chose” to seek asylum in authoritarian Russia. It was only when the U.S. people started reacting to the facts, rather than to the person who brought those facts to our collective attention, that The Discussion Option was vouchsafed.
There are several similarities between these two presidentially-endorsed Discussion Options: 1) they both were offered to the public after President Obama failed to get his way simply through fiat; 2) they both allowed the administration and most of the mainstream press to present us with dubious truisms, which most of us did not and do not believe to be true; 3) they both were intended as damage control, rather than to facilitate democratic decision-making. What the president wants is a “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of discussion, instead of a real back-and-forth.
On the other hand, there are many issues that, in the presidential mind, do not warrant use of The Discussion Option. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is one such case. With TPP, the international negotiations are secret. There is little about either these negotiations or about the TPP itself in the mainstream media. Even the parties to the negotiations are not publicized. Do you know who is negotiating? Or what the areas of agreement/disagreement are? Or what the issues are? Or where the negotiation process is up to? Or what is the timetable for approval or rejection? Except for those who are actual parties to the negotiations, few do. Since there is no issue, no controversy, the president feels no need to call for a nationwide discussion.
Similarly, while the Keystone XL Pipeline has indeed become an issue and the president has therefore okayed a discussion of it, he only offered such a discussion after he found that his State Department couldn’t get away with just approving the pipeline. At the same time, he has approved other pipelines without public discussion or knowledge. So, while we are earnestly discussing the pros and cons of safety issues, environmental issues, economic issues, surrounding the Keystone XL, the president has been quietly “expediting” consideration and approval of other pipelines. One would almost think that Obama made use of the discussion of Keystone XL as a smokescreen behind which he could give the go-ahead to these other pipelines without much public notice or scrutiny.
And then there’s the ongoing and burgeoning disaster at Fukushima. The U.S. government response, immediately after the initial catastrophe, was to eliminate the public recording of nuclear radiation in the atmosphere, thus leaving people in the dark about the severity of the problem. (This, you may remember, was the same approach the Bush administration took to the air quality over New York City in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center: everything is fine; no need for air-quality readings.) As the situation in Fukushima has deteriorated further, much of the scientific community has begun calling for an international effort to understand and limit what is, after all, an international problem. The prevailing weather patterns and ocean currents come from Japan directly to the west coast of the United States. Has our government been talking to the Japanese government about this? One would hope so. But none of this is for public consumption, so we can’t know for sure. Thus, there is no felt need on the part of the president to employ The Discussion Option, especially since its tenor might impinge negatively on the U.S. domestic nuclear energy industry.
In all these cases, The Discussion Option turns out to be a mere ploy – a tactic the president makes use of – in order to get his way, often against public sentiment, rather than a tool either for enlightening the public or for allowing public opinion to influence governmental decision-making. So, on some topics, we have one-way, top-down “discussions” with no real dialogue; on others, we have even less than this: neither false discussion nor real dialogue. In such situations, we have an illustration of Nancy Pelosi’s pungent phrase: “That option is off the table.”
Ultimately the real lesson of all this is that the Obama administration prefers that there be no information forthcoming and discussion can be avoided in toto. But if some information does manage to leak out, the next line of defense is The Discussion Option, where administration officials and the media try to tell us what to think. Whichever approach is used, the goal is the same: to stifle totally, or, failing that, to inhibit as much as possible public participation in the democratic process.
Gene Glickman is a retired college professor of music. He now conducts a progressive chorus, called “Harmonic Insurgence,” and makes choral arrangements for it and other choruses. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.