The Signal and the Noise

Why subtlety and national security don't mix.

Before Congress took a well-earned nine day recess, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to consider the nominations of two generals to lead Central Command and Africa Command. Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Central Command nominee, General Lloyd Austin: "If...we pick a [troop] number in Afghanistan that makes it a high likelihood of failure, that would be sending the wrong signals, do you agree, to the Iranians?" Austin replied: "I would, sir. I would agree with that."

Later, Gen. Austin observed of cutting forces from the Middle East: "Once you reduce the presence in the region, you could very well signal the wrong things to our adversaries." Sen. Kelly Ayotte echoed his observation, claiming that President Obama's plan to withdraw 34,000 thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan within one year "leaves us dangerously low on military personnel...it's going to send a clear signal that America's commitment to Afghanistan is going wobbly." Similarly, during a separate House Armed Services Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ominously warned of the possibility of sequestration: "Perhaps most important, the world is watching. Our friends and allies are watching, potential foes -- all over the world."

These routine and unchallenged assertions highlight what is perhaps the most widely agreed-upon conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign and national security policymaking: the inherent power of signaling. This psychological capability rests on two core assumptions: All relevant international audiences can or will accurately interpret the signals conveyed, and upon correctly comprehending this signal, these audiences will act as intended by U.S. policymakers. Many policymakers and pundits fundamentally believe that the Pentagon is an omni-directional radar that uniformly transmits signals via presidential declarations, defense spending levels, visits with defense ministers, or troop deployments to receptive antennas. A bit of digging, however, exposes cracks in the premises underlying signaling theories.

There is a half-century of social science research demonstrating the cultural and cognitive biases that make communication difficult between two humans. Why would this be any different between two states, or between a state and non-state actor? Unlike foreign policy signaling in the context of disputes or escalating crises -- of which there is an extensive body of research into types and effectiveness -- policymakers' claims about signaling are merely made in a peacetime vacuum. These signals are never articulated with a precision that could be tested or falsified, and thus policymakers cannot be judged misleading or wrong.

Paired with the faith in signaling is the assumption that policymakers can read the minds of potential or actual friends and adversaries. During the cycle of congressional hearings this spring, you can rest assured that elected representatives and expert witnesses will claim to know what the Iranian supreme leader thinks, how "the Taliban" perceives White House pronouncements about Afghanistan, or how allies in East Asia will react to sequestration. This self-assuredness is referred to as the illusion of transparency by psychologists, or how "people overestimate others' ability to know them, and...also overestimate their ability to know others." 

Policymakers also conceive of signaling as a one-way transmission: something that the United States does and others absorb. You rarely read or hear critical thinking from U.S. policymakers about how to interpret the signals from others states. Moreover, since U.S. officials correctly downplay the attention-seeking actions of adversaries -- such as Iran's near-weekly pronouncement of inventing a new drone or missile -- wouldn't it be safer to assume that the majority of U.S. signals are similarly dismissed? During my encounters with foreign officials, few take U.S. government pronouncements seriously, and instead assume they are made to appease domestic audiences.

At the same time, the range of acceptable national security signals is a very narrow spectrum framed by "strong" on one end and "weak" on the other. The former is always characterized as the preferred communication, while the latter is dismissed pejoratively. As a result, the constant need to signal American strength is the overriding justification and/or objective for more -- more spending, more troops, more carrier battle group tours, etc. But since only weak or strong can be indicated, officials never ask if some foreign policy activity will signal whether the United States is wise, hypocritical, just, or moral.

Finally, it is ironic that many of the biggest advocates of non-verbally signaling intentions to adversaries also believe that the United States must never actually communicate directly with them. For these policymakers, speaking to an adversary face-to-face is a "reward" that should be withheld, and one that is much less effective than indefinitely stationing tens of thousands of U.S. troops in a neighboring country.

There is little doubt that the United States -- due to its military power, range of self-generated global interests, and perpetual state of warfare -- is more closely watched and studied than any other state on earth. However, what outsiders think about the United States based on national security debates on Capitol Hill and U.S. foreign policy actions is beyond the control of Washington. There are specific strategies, missions, and tasks that U.S. servicemembers and diplomats are sent abroad to achieve. Signaling, as a justification in itself, should not be one of them given its significant costs and inherent limits -- though it might be worth trying.

In 1977, the United States sent two Voyager spacecraft on a mission to "conduct closeup studies of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's rings, and the larger moons of the two planets." Only intended to last five years, both Voyagers are now more than nine million miles from earth, sending back information on an open-ended interstellar mission of discovery. Attached to each are identical gold-plated copper records. The records' contents, developed by a committee chaired by astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, included: greetings in 55 languages, various natural and human-generated sounds (including one hour of author Ann Druyan's brain waves compressed into one minute), music samplings from around the world, 115 images encoded in analog form, and instructions for how to play the record for extraterrestrial life forms.

Sagan later warned, "Many, perhaps most, of our messages will be indecipherable. But we have sent them because it is important to try." Indeed, it was important to try signaling this information to aliens, though notably it was never the primary mission or justification for the Voyager probes, nor done with any expectation of success. Moreover, listening to the golden records -- much like listening to signaling claims in Washington -- communicates much more about who we are to us, than it ever could to anyone, or anything, else.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

National Security

The Warrior King

Isn't this an awful lot of war for President 'Peace in Our Time'?

During his second inaugural address, President Obama offered two aspirational statements that struck many observers as incongruous with administration policies: "A decade of war is now ending" and "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." We should question these observations, not least because of the string of U.S. government plans and activities that increasingly blur the conventional definition of war.

My own list of war-like activities since Obama's inaugural would include: four drone strikes that killed 16 people (all in Yemen); the acknowledgement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta regarding drones, "We've done that in Pakistan. We're doing it in Yemen and elsewhere. I think the reality is its going to be a continuing tool of national defense in the future"; the announcement that the U.S. military would provide intelligence, transportation, and refueling support for the French intervention in Mali; the signing of a U.S.-Niger status of forces agreement that will likely include a drone base for surveillance missions, although U.S. officials "have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point"; the forthcoming expansion (perhaps quintupling) of U.S. Cyber Command, including "combat mission forces" for offensive cyberattacks; the executive branch's secret legal review determining that Obama "has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad"; the Marine commandant's announcement of a new "crisis response unit" that would be "rapidly employable" to "address crises"; and the revelation that the United States is negotiating to purchase the Sheraton Hotel in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to house the growing number of embassy staff, troops, and contractors who implement U.S. security force assistance and counterterrorism operations in that country. (For other examples, see the interesting End of War Timeline that Jack Goldsmith and Lawfare created.)

Using lethal force against other countries -- and developing and sustaining the capabilities to do so in perpetuity -- are the distinguishing features of a country at war. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld, Jr. remarked in November, "We remain a nation at war." In January, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Ted Koppel that even after 2014, "Our war in Afghanistan will be complete, but no one has ever suggested that that will end the war." Last week, Secretary Panetta reminded policymakers and the press, as he often does: "We are in a war. We're in a war on terrorism and we've been in that war since 9/11." Finally, during his grueling confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel stated:  "We're at war in Afghanistan. We're at war around the world....The fact is we've been at war for 12 years."

Most analysts and journalists have focused on President Obama's expanded scope, intensity, and institutionalization of targeted killings against suspected terrorists and militants. However, perhaps the enduring legacy of the Obama administration will be its sustained, rigorous effort to shape and define-down the idea of war. Consider in March 2011, during the NATO-led intervention in Libya, when a reporter asked White House spokesperson Jay Carney, "What is this military action?...Is it a war?" He replied, "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners." When pressed for more details, Carney added:

I'm not going to get into the terminology. I think what it is certainly not is, as others have said, a large-scale military -- open-ended military action -- the kind of which might otherwise be described as a war. There's no ground troops, as the president said. There's no land invasion.

After the war in Libya ended with the extrajudicial killing of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama bragged that U.S. involvement "only cost us $1 billion as opposed to $1 trillion," and "not a single U.S. troop [was] on the ground...not a single U.S. troop was killed. That, I think, is a recipe for success in the future." Thus, the strategic objective of military intervention is to minimize the quantifiable costs, not to develop a plausible strategy that achieves some desired outcome.

Similarly, White House senior counterterrorism adviser John Brennan defended drone strikes in April 2012 by comparing them to "deploying large armies abroad" and "large, intrusive military deployments." Soon afterward, when Carney was asked if the Obama administration relied on the same "loose definition of the declaration of war that President Bush did" in its use of drone strikes, he noted: "Using some of these tools is preferable when you are concerned about civilian casualties than, say, launching a full-scale invasion by land." (Perhaps unconsciously, senior administration officials always antiseptically refer to drone strikes as "targeted strikes" by "tools of national power" and not targeted killings of people by drones.)

This is all part of a systematic effort to remind Americans about the strategic error of invading Iraq, and to create the impression that counterterrorism strategies must incorporate kinetic force. Given the false dichotomy between 170,000 troops in Iraq and drone strikes, who would oppose the latter? Moreover, this implies that military operations involving less than a full-scale invasion or ground troops (which conveniently omits U.S. special operators or private military contractors required) is not considered a "war."

This characterization also assumes that war can only occur when it reaches some predetermined threshold of immediate human or financial costs. The president's "recipe for success in the future" is for military operations that are low-cost and low-risk (in the short-term, as it turned out in Libya) for Americans. Not factored into the equation are the impact on the people living in the affected countries (and the global hatred for drone strikes) and "secondary and tertiary effects out here that one day you have to live with," as former CIA director Michael Hayden recently said (most notably the growth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the last two years from "several hundred" to a "few thousand" members). The bottom line: if Americans are detached from the repercussions, or shielded by executive branch secrecy and a disinterested Congress, it is not war.

Developments have only further confirmed my November prediction that America will never again have a peacetime president. If America is not engaged in a perpetual war, how else could the White House believe it has the legal authority to authorize an "informed, high-level" government official to order the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who is not provided the due process protections mandated by the Constitution?

Given how U.S. policymakers describe national security threats, and privilege military responses to them, it should not be surprising that the United States finds itself in a state of perpetual war. Isn't this why we spend $633 billion on defense and $75.4 billion on national and military intelligence, not to mention the 134,508 U.S. servicemembers deployed around the world (not including 68,000 in Afghanistan)? War is not only the D-Day invasion of Normandy or Operation Desert Storm. Don't let anyone -- even a Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- tell you otherwise.