The Media’s Missing The Point: Syria, Empire, & The Power Of Signaling

Trying to reduce the carefully choreographed drama to one stage and one audience risks misunderstanding the signal.

It seems many media observers are confused by events in Syria and the swirl of competing narratives. Did the Swamp drain Trump? Did the Neocons succeed in forcing Trump to follow their lead? Is the U.S. ramping up yet another endless war?

Consider the possibility that none of these narratives actually get to the heart of what’s going on. To make sense of all this, we’re going to have to delve into topics far below today’s headlines.

I think Ilargi (The Automatic Earth) got it right in his recent essay Symbols of Strength, in which he proposed that the entire cruise-missile exercise had little to do with Syria and everything to do with signaling Trump’s willingness to use force to China’s President Xi jinping.

Signaling is a term that is currently much in vogue. I used it in my recent essays Virtue-Signaling the Decline of the Empire (February 28, 2017) and It’s What’s Happening Beneath the Surface That Matters.

The original idea of signaling, drawn from economist Michael Spence’s job-market signaling model, has become confused with communication.

Spence proposed the notion that a college degree bridges the asymmetrical information gap between employer and employee: the employer has a tough time obtaining useful information on the qualifications and intelligence of job applicants. A college degree signals employers that the applicant is perseverent enough to get through 4+ years of college, and has enough intelligence (and work ethic) to earn the diploma.

Here is Bloomberg writer Noah Smith’s description of the difference between signaling and communicating: “Spence’s signaling model was about proving yourself by doing something difficult — something so difficult that someone who didn’t have what it takes wouldn’t even bother.”

In other words, communication isn’t a signal. A quizzical raised eyebrow, a scoffing chuckle, a wry comment–all of these telegraph emotional content as well as information. But these are not signals.

A signal is a form of communication, but its cost must be high to be persuasive. A signal can provide information on intent, depth of commitment, willingness to accept risk and much more.

A signal is often intended to communicate different things to different audiences.

To understand signaling, we need to understand the difference between force and power. Edward Luttwak ably described the difference in his book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: force is a mechanical input (expense) that doesn’t scale: it takes a lot of people, effort and treasure to force others to comply with Imperial edicts.

Power, on the other hand, is ultimately the sum total output of the Empire: its productive capacity, resources, human and social capital–everything. Power influences others without direct coercion. This allows the Empire to extend its influence without having to bear the enormous costs of applying force.

Luttwak explains that power results from positioning military assets to serve political-power objectives. That is, the assets must be positioned to credibly threaten the use of force anywhere in the Empire, but the job of maintaining influence/control is done more by signaling the readiness and ability to use force rather than having to put the force in the field (a very costly and risky venture that often turns out badly).

In other words, the perception of power and the willingness and ability to apply force is what matters in terms of political influence. If we look through this lens, we discern a much different picture of what may be going on with the cruise missile attack on Syria.

(I also recommend Luttwak’s companion volume, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.)

The “Secret Sauce” of the Byzantine Empire: Stable Currency, Social Mobility (September 1, 2016)

Here is some essential context for the signaling of the U.S., Russia and China. The U.S. spends roughly $700 billion annually on its Armed Forces and another $100 billion on intelligence agencies and defense-related expenditures. So round it up to $800 billion.

That is roughly 15% of total federal spending, and a bit over 3% of America’s GDP. Historically, these are very low numbers. In other words, the U.S. isn’t even spending much of its total available output on its military.

Every great power aims its signals at both the international audience and the domestic audience. Rather than being a poker game, signaling is more 3-D chess, with three boards in play at all times: client states and allies; potential adversaries, and the domestic audience.

China, Russia and the U.S. are all signaling to these three different audiences with every pronouncement and every action.

We must be careful not to misread a signal primarily intended for a domestic audience as being more than a symbolic act. All the analysts who see the cruise-missile attack as “proof” that the Swamp has drained Trump, or the U.S. intends to raamp up its involvement in Syria are looking at only one board–or they’ve misread the game entirely, and are glued to a PR sideshow.

A successful signal performs on multiple levels, leveraging the effect at a low cost. No Great Power can afford to use only brute force to maintain influence. Signals may be directed at multiple audiences, and trying to reduce the carefully choreographed drama to one stage and one audience risks misunderstanding the signal.

The entire cruise-missile drama hints at the possibility that U.S. Neocons are being played. It’s all too pat for my taste. But that’s a topic for another essay.

*  *  *

For those interested in Imperial strategies, force and power, I recommend these books as worthy starting places. I am not an authority, I am only an avid amateur, so please let me know which other books you’ve found to be especially insightful.

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Adrian Goldsworthy)

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (Peter Turchin)

The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire (Anthony Everitt)

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Giusto Traina)

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Jack Weatherford)

Venice: A New History (Thomas F. Madden)

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Judith Herrin)

The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 14. The Reports are emailed weekly to major contributors and patrons ($50 annually or $5/month or higher).

CNN Anchor Speechless After Congressman Questions Syria Chemical Attack Narrative

Via TheAntiMedia.org,

A CNN anchor was left speechless Wednesday during a televised interview when a congressman questioned the mainstream narrative that Bashar al-Assad attacked his own people with chemical weapons this week.

“It’s hard to know exactly what’s happening in Syria right now. I’d like to know specifically how that release of chemical gas, if it did occur — and it looks like it did — how that occurred,” Representative Thomas Massie toldCNN’s Kate Bolduan.

Continuing, the Kentucky congressman asked the question so many who doubt the established line have asked in the past: Why?

Because frankly, I don’t think Assad would have done that. It does not serve his interests. It would tend to draw us into that civil war even further.”

Note that the corporate anchor’s expression snaps to attention the instant she realizes Massie is doubting the narrative.

Bolduan, visibly taken aback by what the man is saying — as though it were inconceivable a U.S. lawmaker might have an original opinion on matters — fumbled for words a few moments before managing a simple: “Who do you think is behind it?”

Massie began to answer, but Bolduan cut him off. Unsurprisingly, she asked him directly if he was saying he believes what the Russians are saying — that Assad had nothing to do with the attack that killed dozens in Syria on Tuesday. Reuters reported Wednesday that the attack has sparked renewed calls to oust the country’s president.

The Kentucky congressman stuck to his guns, however, reiterating his earlier position:

“I don’t think it would’ve served Assad’s purposes to do a chemical attack on his people…It’s hard for me to understand why he would do that — if he did.”

The CNN anchor, clearly at a loss for words, thanked Massie for his time.

Russian Warship Steaming Toward U.S Destroyers Off Syria Coast

Early this morning we reported that as part of its response to the Syrian attack, in addition to suspending communication with U.S. forces designed to stop planes colliding over Syria, the Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich would be deployed to the Tartus naval base in Syria. The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s frigate The Admiral Grigorovich, currently on a routine voyage, would enter the Mediterranean later on Friday, a military-diplomatic source in Moscow told TASS, adding that the ship would make a stop at the logistics base in Syria’s port of Tartus.

Russia wasted no time, and as FN reports, moments ago, the Russian frigate, Admiral Grigorovich RFS-494, crossed through the Bosphorus Strait “a few hours ago” from the Black Sea, according to a U.S. defense official.

BREAKING:Russia Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate armed w/ cruise missiles about to enter the Mediterranean heading to naval base in Tartus

The Russian warship is now in the eastern Mediterranean steaming in the direction of the U.S. warships. The Admiral Grigorovich is armed with advanced Kalibr cruise missiles.

According to the official version, the frigate was bound for the Syrian port of Tartus on a routine voyage, the Russian news agency TASS reported Friday, citing a military-diplomatic source.

“The Russian ship armed with cruise missiles Kalibr will visit the logistics base in Tartus, Syria,” the source said, according to TASS. The ship was currently near the Black Sea straits, Tass reported.  The ship left on a voyage after stopping at Novorossiisk for supplies and taking part in a joint exercise with Turkish ships in the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, Fox News adds that one of the American destroyers that launched the missiles into Syria started heading to an undisclosed location to rearm.

Breslow: The Market’s Reaction To Syrian Strikes Was “Ridiculously Overdone”

Bloomberg’s ex-FX trader Richard Breslow is out with his daily dose of wisdom, and in his latest overnight note he urges fellow traders to “Try to Avoid Trading for All the Wrong Reasons”, such as what happened overnight in Syria, which he believes is a non-event, and that today’s other risk event, payrolls (as well as Trump-Xi) are far more relevant to asset prices:

“Will today’s non-farm payroll report move markets one way or another? Probably. Does the Fed’s plans for its balance sheet, whatever they might end up being, have enormous implications for assets of all stripes? You bet. Tax reform, health care and European politics are among loads of reasons for investor anxiety. Last night’s events shouldn’t be among them.”

Judging by the early rush to BTFD, he is right.

Full note below:

Try to Avoid Trading for All the Wrong Reasons

Obviously traders are nervous. We’ve been talking about it all week. But it’s unlikely that the U.S. crippling an air base from which chemical weapon atrocities were launched will be a defining moment in whether markets crack or not. In fact, I thought the initial reaction was ridiculously overdone. 

There have been expressions of horror at the attacks the Syrian government carried out on helpless civilians, including children. No shortage of calls for something to be done. By people across the spectrum of political opinion. So something was done.

Be careful in extrapolating a proportional response into a therefore inevitable replay of previous Middle-East misadventures just because you’re hoping this will help your bond position go your way.

The most laughable explanation I heard for why the market reacted as it did was, “It was so sudden. Did he really think this through? Or have other motives? Is he stable?” Get a grip. You shouldn’t program your algorithms based on not liking the guy.

The same people telling me to sell S&P futures on this were arguing a few weeks ago that adverse market reactions to terrorist incidents are always a good buying opportunity.

If anything, there have been more bipartisan expressions of support than for anything the U.S. administration has done to date. So it is possible. How often do you get Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Paul Ryan and John McCain agreeing on something?

And if it leads to an actual comprehensive plan on what should be done in the region, alongside a commitment to consult Congress before any true escalation, all the better.

Will today’s non-farm payroll report move markets one way or another? Probably. Does the Fed’s plans for its balance sheet, whatever they might end up being, have enormous implications for assets of all stripes? You bet. Tax reform, health care and European politics are among loads of reasons for investor anxiety. Last night’s events shouldn’t be among them.

Russia To Upgrade Syria Air Defenses, Suspends Airspace Pact With U.S.

If Trump wanted to provoke the Kremlin – an odd decision considering all the daily “press coverage” that the Kremlin controlled the president – he has achieved just that: Russia said it will reinforce Syria’s air defences and, as reported previously, is sending a missile carrying warship to the eastern Mediterranean in response to a US cruise missile strikes on a Syrian government airbase.

The Russian ministry of defence said in a statement that “to protect key Syrian infrastructure a range of measures will be taken reinforce and improve the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces air defence.” The announcement came as the Admiral Grigorevich, a cruise missile carrying frigate, passed through the Bosporus en-route to Russia’s Syrian navy base at Tartus.

Also on Friday Russia announced it had halted its air safety agreement with the US, meant to avoid “air incidents” with the US over Syria, saying US air strikes had caused “considerable” damage to Moscow-Washington relations. The memorandum, signed in October 2015, was designed to avoid clashes in the crowded airspace over Syria, with each side giving the other warning over planned strikes.

The defense ministry also said that six MiG-23 fighter jets were destroyed in the US missile strike on a Syrian airfield in Homs province, but the runway remained intact.  The strike on the Shayrat airfield in Syria’s Homs Province destroyed a material storage depot, a training facility, a canteen, six MiG-23 aircraft in repair hangars and a radar station.

Two Syrian servicemen are missing as a result of the US attack on an airfield in the country, while four were killed and six were injured extinguishing the flames, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Friday. “According to the information of the leadership of the Syrian airbase, two Syrian servicemen went missing, four were killed and six received burn injuries during the firefighting,” he said.

The runway, taxiways and the Syrian aircraft on the parking apron remained undamaged, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman said in a statement. The ministry described the combat efficiency of the strike as “quite poor.”

“On April 7, 2017, between 3:42am and 3:56am Moscow time, two US Navy destroyers (USS Porter and USS Ross) fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat airfield in Homs Province, Syria, from an area near the Island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea.

“According to our sources, only 23 of them reached the Syrian airbase,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said, adding that the points of impact of the other 36 cruise missiles remain unknown.

The ministry also slammed the US actions as “a gross violation” of the memorandum of understanding signed by Moscow in Washington back in 2015 to prevent flight incidents in Syrian airspace.

All justifications for the strike are “groundless claims,” the ministry continued.

“The administrations of the United States are changing, but the methods of unleashing wars have remained the same since Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. And again, the pretext of aggression is not an objective investigation, but allegations, fact manipulation, showing photos and pseudo-vials at international organizations,” Konashenkov said.

“Russia made an earlier statement that the Syrian forces did not use chemical weapons. We are waiting for clarification from the US on undisputed – as they claim – evidence that it was the Syrian Army that deployed chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.”

The ministry also pointed to the events that followed the strikes, a large-scale offensive against the Syrian Army carried out by Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front terrorists. “We hope that this offensive was in no way coordinated with the US,” the ministry said.

“A number of measures aimed at strengthening and improving the effectiveness of the Syrian air defense system will be implemented in the near future in order to protect the vital parts of the Syrian infrastructure,” Konashenkov said.