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.

Despite all the talk about red lines and the "necessity" of responding to the use of chemical weapons with force, everyone in the United States and the world understands that the United States would not go to war with Russia, or China, or North Korea, or Pakistan, if one of those countries used chemical weapons on their own people. No foreign government is so simpleminded as to think, "The Americans responded to chemical weapons in Syria by striking the country, so they're obviously going to respond in exactly the same way to any other country."

Whether or not we attack Syria, "rogue regimes" will know, as well as we do ourselves, that "getting away with" future use of chemical weapons depends not on precedent, but on the offending country, its international alliances, its military strength, the U.S. president at the time and his or her priorities, and three dozen other factors. The Signal Hawks' faith in absolute transitivity is as strong as it is baffling.

Arguments that turn on signal-sending so often adopt assumptions about the signal to be sent that are highly questionable at best, and that are, at worst, simplistic, naive, and totally lacking in rigor. Their advocates never seem to look back and notice the signals that don't work. The Iraq invasion was predicated in part on the fact that Saddam Hussein gassed his own people, and the belief that he had chemical weapons. Yet neither the Iraq invasion nor the execution of Saddam Hussein stopped chemical weapons from being used in Syria.

And what are we to make of the argument that we must intervene because "the world is watching"? It might make sense as a hawkish talking point if most of the world decidedly favored intervention, but that is far from true. The parliament of our closest ally, along with the British people, thinks intervention is a bad idea. Neither the UN nor NATO will endorse intervention, and it's hard to imagine that, say, Brazil or Canada or India will change its attitudes toward America in any salutary way if and only if we send cruise missiles or bombs into Syria.

The world is always watching, and parts of the world, like Israel, may be eager for America to intervene in Syria. Of course, disappointing the Israelis by failing to intervene, even though they're watching, wouldn't do any damage to the United States. Nor is America's relationship with the hawkish French likely to suffer in any profound way if we stay out of Syria. Meanwhile, there are many parts of the world who are watching Obama and thinking to themselves, "Are those fool Americans so arrogant as to launch another war in the Middle East?" The Signal Hawks often invoke "the world watching" in a way that is totally disconnected from actual world opinion and perceptions of the conflict in question -- as if global observers broadly share hawkish notions of credibility.

Ignored are the many salutary signals that the U.S. would just as plausibly send by doing the opposite of what the hawks want. The United States must not intervene in Syria, because the UN has not approved a strike, and the United States must signal that it respects international law so that we have credibility in the future.

Why isn't that the relevant signal?

America must send a signal to anti-regime forces in the Muslim world that they won't get our help if al-Qaeda-friendly factions are among their ranks. 

Why isn't that the relevant signal? I don't accept the notion that signals are as important as the Signal Hawks say, but if they were, the Signal Hawks never offer any argument about why the particular signal that they focus on is operative or most important -- as best I can tell, it's an unexamined assumption that is never fleshed out or defended.

Different Signal Hawks typically believe that credibility is conferred by bellicose rhetoric (neocons) or military strikes against much weaker countries (internationalist liberals), and erroneously believe that everyone else in the world will react to American intervention by respecting us more forever after. Going to war to send signals is always a dubious enterprise that shows insufficient respect for the seriousness of war. It is especially foolish when there's no reason to believe that the signal being sent is the one Signal Hawks want to send.


* "What does getting deployed mean, mommy?"

"It means they're sending your dad very far away for awhile."

"Will he have to kill people?"


"Why did they send daddy far away to go kill people?"

"Well, America has to signal resolve, so that other countries will know we have it in the future."