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The Signal and the Noise

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
February 20, 2013
Foreign Policy

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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.

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