The 'Signal Hawks' and Their Dubious Theory of International Relations

The messages they want to send aren't anything a foreign government would plausibly believe.
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War is expensive. 

War is unpredictable.

War is hell. 

That's why many people believe it ought to be avoided whenever possible, that it's foolhardy to enter a war of choice if you can safely avoid doing so. 

There isn't any one rule that can guide a nation in all circumstances. Perhaps the U.S. ought to have intervened to stop the genocide in Rwanda, though we could avoid doing so. But a strong case can be made that the "go to war only if you must" rule of thumb would've served America well even it had been applied inflexibly for the whole postwar era. Imagine a world where the 58,000 Americans who needlessly died in Vietnam were still alive, and the 5,000 Americans who died in Iraq were around too. We'd also be a few trillion dollars richer, and have hundreds of thousands fewer people suffering from missing limbs or PTSD. (Then again, we wouldn't enjoy the fruits of having invaded Grenada.) 

Imprudent wars are so catastrophic that even a small risk of one just isn't worth it. Most Americans don't quite believe that war should only be entered by necessity. But their instinct to apply the "only if you must" rule is enduringly strong.

What I don't understand is another sort of American -- a particular kind of foreign-policy hawk. They frequently urge interventions, like Senator John McCain, but their interventionism isn't rooted, like his, in the valorization of martial values. Nor is it rooted in Samantha Power-style beliefs about stopping atrocities.

The hawks I don't understand are the ones who urge war not to achieve a "kinetic" end, but to send a signal. President Obama wants to intervene in Syria not to topple the regime or give the rebels a decisive advantage, but to send a signal that chemical-weapons use will not be tolerated. I suppose I can almost wrap my brain around that attitude, though I doubt striking Syria will impact future use of chemical weapons. 

From there, the Signal Hawks start to totally mystify me.

Professor Carrie Cordero of Georgetown also wants to intervene in Syria in order to send signals, but a different set of signals than the ones Obama wants to send. Here's how she put it at Lawfare (emphasis added):

There is the pragmatic question of whether intervention is in the United States’ national security interests. There are strong arguments that it is, but it does not sound as if the Administration has made that case yet to Congress, or to the public.

In short, punishing the Syrian regime by means of military force, and more broadly, intervening in the Syrian civil war, is in the United States’ national security interests because the world is watching. And what the world, and particularly those governments or terrorist organizations that act contrary to U.S. interests will see in our actions, our resolve*, will affect their behavior in the future. Accordingly, it is in our interests:

  • For the Syrian civil war to resolve, sooner rather than later.
  • For the Syrian civil war to not spread further and destabilize what is left of governments with whom we can at least have an open dialogue on Middle East issues, such as Jordan.
  • To send a message to the world’s rogue regimes -- like North Korea and Iran -- that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.
  • To demonstrate to the Arab street that we have compassion for their children, too, and that we will back that compassion with strength to defend and protect the most vulnerable.
  • To see that the Assad regime falls, and that we have deeper insight into who will make up the new leadership of Syria, and that we will have a channel through which to dialogue and work with that leadership.

With all due respect to Cordero, almost every time I encounter this attitude toward international affairs I can't help but suspect that it is totally lacking in rigor.

Let's probe some of her arguments.

Is a military attack on another country in the Middle East really the only way, the best way, or an effective way to show that we have compassion for the region's children? There are certainly ways other than an act of war to send that signal. For example, we could help the child refugees who've been streaming out of Syria. Even if we did, the people of the region would still be well aware that Americans are willing to incidentally kill faraway Muslim children in drone strikes if they believe that those strikes will make Americans infinitesimally safer from terrorism. Is a Yemeni, aware of the innocents we've killed, or an Iraqi, aware of our sanctions regime, or anyone familiar with the totality of U.S. policy really going to conclude after a cruise-missile strike that the U.S. really does care about their children? "The Americans are bombing Syria -- it must be because they have a high regard for the lives of Syrian children," exactly no one will think. 

Now consider another signal intervention would allegedly send. 

Imagine that we fire cruise missiles into Syria. Would that really send a signal to North Korea that we would not tolerate their use of chemical weapons? Whatever one thinks about an American attack on Syria, it is unlikely to lead to a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, or the deaths of thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea, or a potentially catastrophic confrontation with China -- all of which could happen if we attacked North Korea after it used chemical weapons on its own people. And the North Koreans surely understand that the strategic calculus behind attacking Syria for chemical-weapons use would be different from the factors Obama would weigh if it were North Korea. Signal Hawks often act as if foreigners will be totally oblivious to the obvious. 

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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