Signaling has a role to play in international relations. But it’s an inherently problematic subject since it’s difficult if not impossible to communicate unambiguous signals. And there’s a long and tragic history of the conservative obsession with trying to signal “toughness” leading to the unnecessary death of large quantities of people. But while the conservative effort to signal toughness and resolve to other states is misguided, the idea of trying to signal toughness and resolve to a small band of terrorists is insane. And yet Steve Coll reports that in US Counter-Terrorism Strategy and al-Qaeda: Signalling and the Terrorist World-View, author Joshua Alexander Geltzer persuasively argues that this is exactly what the Bush administration was trying to do:
Geltzer not only reviewed the public record—speeches by Presidents Clinton and Bush, and by other key actors such as former Vice-President Cheney—but he also conducted a number of on-the-record interviews with intelligence officials and counterterrorism policymakers from both the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Among other things, he has produced a fascinating and chilling thread of narrative history of the Iraq war’s casus belli. He documents richly the consensus among Bush Administration decision-makers, outside of a few realists such as Richard Armitage, that among other purposes, it was necessary to invade Iraq in order to send a general deterrent signal to all terrorists in the Middle East. Geltzer quotes Henry Kissinger’s rationale for advising Bush to carry out the Iraq invasion: “We had to go in there … to make clear that challenging the United States had disastrous consequences…. Afghanistan was not enough to make that point.”
To a great extent, Geltzer argues, the Bush Administration fashioned its terrorist signaling strategy in reaction to what Cheney, in particular, considered to be the “provocative weakness” of Clinton Administration signaling; that is, Cheney and others of like mind truly believed that the United States had meaningfully invited 9/11 by failing to respond more forcefully to the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks against U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.
We’re not talking, at either the leadership level or the rank-and-file level, about guys who rob liquor stores and might decide to go into some other line of work if they hear that prison sentences are getting harsher. And of course this sort of thinking extended beyond the Bush administration into the ranks of elite pundits like Thomas “Suck on This” Friedman:
It’s really painful to think that there are thousands of American soldiers who are dead today because of the belief that al-Qaeda would stop trying to kill Americans if only we showed ourselves willing to shed other people’s blood in a reckless manner.