Home/Daniel Larison/The Magical Power of “Signaling”

The Magical Power of “Signaling”

Max Boot was optimistic yesterday that the Foreign Relations Committee could send a “signal” by approving Menendez-Corker:

A major battle is now unfolding in the city of Qusayr pitting Hezbollah and Assad fighters against rebels in what both sides say could be a turning point in the war. A signal now from the U.S. that it will do more to help the rebels could tilt the balance of power in their favor [bold mine-DL]. Perception matters a great deal in war and the prospect of American support for the insurgency could lead more Syrians to join its ranks while causing some of Assad’s fighters to lose heart.

Think about what Boot is saying here. He says that there is a battle currently underway in Syria that “could be a turning point in the war,” and yet Boot thinks that sending a “signal” with a committee vote could “tilt the balance of power in their favor.” The legislation has not yet been approved, much less signed into law, and the supplies that the bill authorizes wouldn’t reach the “vetted” Syrian opposition groups for at least several more months, but somehow a vote from a Senate committee will change the opposition’s fortunes on the battlefield right now. This is nothing more than magical thinking. Boot writes as if there are actually Syrians that base their political allegiances on how the Foreign Relations Committee votes. It treats “signals” from the U.S. as if they have some powerful rallying effect on the opposition side, when in all likelihood the committee’s vote to approve Menendez-Corker will be met with indifference or scorn by many of the people it is supposed to benefit. Trying to send “signals” to achieve policy goals is a thankless task, since there is no guarantee that the “signal” will be received by the targeted audience as the sender intended, and what may be meant as a gesture of support will sometimes be viewed as nothing more than lip service.

To answer Boot’s question, it’s always possible that Congress could force action on Syria, but that requires most members of Congress to be willing to promote and own an unpopular, risky policy over the objections of the administration. While there is a depressingly large number of members of Congress eager to drag us into Syria’s conflict, it is fortunate that there are probably not enough to force the U.S. to adopt a more aggressive Syria policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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