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

Tyler Durden's picture

Authored by Charles Hugh-Smith via OfTwoMinds blog,

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).

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apadictionary's picture

why is assad not using twitter and youtube. is he that dumb or out of touch with current technology. does he not know how to counter one sided western propaganda? or will fully ignorant

Looney's picture


Awww… Innocent beautiful babies…

Check out the article in Veterans Today with the video of infants being “saved” by the White Helmets after the “chemical attack” in Syria.

In the first few seconds of the video, a “doctor” stabs an infant in the heart with a long syringe needle multiple times, without actually pushing the plunger of the syringe.

Swedish Doctors For Human Rights analyzed the video and claim that “the infants don’t show any signs of Sarin-poisoning, but look heavily sedated with opiates… This was a murder”.


P.S. George Clooney’s “heroes”, The White Helmets, share their headquarters with the Turkish Intelligence in Gaziantep, Turkey. This organization is more of a “death squad” than civil defense.

Newsboy's picture

We know what signal the people see.

What signal do the rulers see?

FrozenGoodz's picture

I don't always send missles at broken down planes ... but when I do, I prefer to be at my private golf club in Florida

Arnold's picture

With a three column Chinese menu.

Arnold's picture

Nice little essay.

Twitter, et al deliver to the lower 1/3 of the curve something they wouldn't ordinarily have.
Something, or somehow to think and develop an instant opinion.

Middle 1/3 don't care.

Top third gather from many sources and come to their own conclusions or contusions as the case may be.

BobEore's picture

Hughes-Smith is quite correct, in saying that the media is missing the point(or was that the headline writer's line?) Yet he himself is missing the bigger point -

that the media is the point! It's doesn't just drive messages anymore, it creates, embellishes, displays, and cultivates stories which are - absent that same media's role and presence... not news at all - just "stories."

This was brilliantlly played up when the ever irascible Jean Baudrillard - asked by two mass media outlets to "cover" the first "Gulf War," accepted, on the condition that instead of going to the "front lines" with the rest of the herd of 'reporters,' who would be screened off from all contact with the "war," and reduced to reading Army PR releases back to their studios,

he would cover it from the studios of the new CNN - where he realized that all the "real" action was made and "packaged." The first "media spectacle" war had arrived - to be vastly improved upon, in the course of time, as exercises like 911 took greater and greater toll upon our reality. Perception management has reached the stage now that the blowing up of a semi-vacant airbase in Syria signals neither "force," "projection of power," nor the willingness to employ either in the pursuit of policy. It "signals," rather, the end of experiencing "events" and indeed our lives themselves, as things which can happen outside of those forces which create and package ... EVERYTHING.

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten. Triumph of superficial form, of the smallest common denominator of all signification, degree zero of meaning, triumph of entropy over all possible tropes. Baudrillard. 

Sometime last summer - just before what would be become the first ever coup d'etat by a government against itself - I recorded what would be needed as antidote to this theft of our very experience of reality - by a media hungry for 'hits' at the expense of wits...

An authentic reportage of what's going on in our world, then, requires of the journalist an ability to deconstruct any alleged "event" staged in hyperreality, and then refashion it in the reader's gaze as a phenomena which may or may not be related to spontaneous activities that take place in real time. Activities which can be chronicled and reported upon by real persons. And then these must be properly contextualized in relation to other real events from past times - with analysis that can interpret past and present both - minus the intrinsic defect of being naively hoodwinked by those who stage events, "news" and youtube style tricks of perception designed to achieve whatever is their desired objective.

little knowing at the time just how quickly it would be needed for covering anything going on in the muddled east.

brain_glitch's picture

Thanks for the delicious words.

wildbad's picture

even when one knows or even suspects such devilry one can only say..


Cole The Bar's picture

That is some messed up shit. Fuck.

wildbad's picture


white helmets are US/british intelligence operatives.

SoDamnMad's picture

There are a lot of YouTubes on the White Helmets corruption and who they actually work for. We give them $23 million though they are "suppose" to be independant.  In some battle you see their base velcro on the clothing and then they slap on the insignia for their heroics.  They get a lot of funding from Soros's Avaaz.

L Bean's picture

The White Helmets should've been exposed long ago. A few bloggers.. doesn't count. I've been showing people IRL as often as I can. Now there are very incriminating pics, easily available.

I feel like something like this hitting critical mass is what will get the internet shut down. If not; UN-FUKUS goes down, the international "entertainment" industry goes down, the CIA goes down, ISIS(or more accurately, Today's Mercenary) goes down.

So, not sure why this hasn't been a PRIORITY for Russia et al. The FACT that the US is "marketing massacres" would be an en masse red pill. The White Helmets, who provide 100% of Syrian media to the west, are the terrorists! And bigly fake, for fucking years now. BUELLER? ANYONE???


quadraspleen's picture

To be honest, I shouldn't think he gives a shit. He's got Vlad at his shoulder.

As for that "military spend" graph. It doesn't talk about value for money, and that's absolutely key here. The US spends 711Bn on shit, and porkbarrel defence contracting "rules". Russia and China spend a fraction, and get real, working badass materiel, not F22's, shite AFV's and trillions going "missing" from the DoD. Great body armour and stores though. That's why the pongo's nicked it all in GW2 *wink*

Yukon Cornholius's picture

I wonder how much of the defense budget goes to pensions and benefits for pentagon desk jockeys.

HardAssets's picture

Those surrounded by fakery, are fooled by it. Fake politicians, fake celebs, fake elections, fake tits, fake 'money', fake economy, fake 'education', fake 'tough guys' with tats, etc, etc.

The U.S. hasn't successfully waged a major war against a major enemy since WW2. Equating capability with the price tag is the same empty headedness that compels some to pay $100 for a hamburger or a pair of jeans.

We may not know actual U.S. capability, but lets not risk lives unnecessarily trying to find out. If its like most things in this society, the reality may overthrow the illusion.

Hyjinx's picture

Yes, but the Russian and Chinese navies are a complete joke so any war over islands (China) or that involved a foreign battlefield (Russia) wouldn't last long as the USN would pretty much destroy them.  Not that any of this would be good but Russia and China do know where they stand.

Is-Be's picture


The U.S. hasn't successfully waged a major war against a major enemy since WW2

Have you run that past the Russians or the citizens of The Empire ( upon which the sun never sets?)

The US is a nation of Patsies who believe everything they are told. And why? Because they cannot comprehend the depths of evil to which they are exposed. An evil which values lies and corruption, ( while of cause lieing about their virtue)

I believe that Mr. Darwin is in on the case.  However your Masters are aware of Mr. Darwin and are keen to breed up lower IQ hominids, while proclaiming endlessly about the virtues of " equality".

The key to your destruction lies in your Neotenic females. The message of equality is aimed squarely at them. That the males see the hollow nature of the ideal of " Equality" is irrelevant.

This is a testable hypothesis. Find out the male/female ratio of the drone pilots. If it favours females, my case is made. They are Neotenic and will obey anyone dressed in a uniform.

estebanDido's picture

True. I used to work with DOD as an auditor and budget analyst. Hard to beleive the screw ball accounting system they have. Made just to HIDE funds, period.

Sick Underbelly's picture

So, you audited it, and nothing changed?   We paid you to do your job, and shit didn't change...not stuff I'd be admitting.

estebanDido's picture

What can one person do when the majority are just braindead idiots. I had a fight with my new scumbag boss and left before taking his head with me, hahaha.

tmosley's picture

That would be truly amazing.

Canadian Dirtlump's picture

Anyone who looks can find Dr. Assad celebrating Christmas in Aleppo, setting the record straight. Anyone who wants to find it can understand his wife and children are Sunni Muslim. Anyone who wants to see, can understand the Syrian government is made up of a varied stained glass of ministers.


Syria's side of the argument has been frozen out of the media since forever, what makes you think twitter would be any different.


As for this being some form of virtue signalling, or that Trump is playing a machiavellian game of 9 dimensional chess - firstly I'd say it's over thinking the situation. Much Like O'donnel thinking the Russians helped out Trump with this to give him cred. Secondly, if it were some Machiavellian move, I'd say it is misguided and dangerous because it can have unintended consequences. I for one was hoping the Mediterranean would have at least 1 more reef after the attack to send a message. I'm thankful Putin and Assad are more statesmen than the West is.


Cernovich has this nailed. THis is a neo-con neo-lib-con hijacking of Trump's foreign policy, and he should have been fukking smart enough to see it. Unless there's something we're not seeing which I hope we see quickly.


Moral of the story, don't get fukking cute when WW3 is on the menu and there is a den of fukking thieves trying to order it.

Lurk Skywatcher's picture

"THis is a neo-con neo-lib-con hijacking of Trump's foreign policy, and he should have been fukking smart enough to see it. Unless there's something we're not seeing which I hope we see quickly."

Its there if you want to look. 60 brand new multi million dollar weapons, pride of the fleet, and 1 didn't launch and 36 didn't make it to the target. The other 23 hit stuff but not stuff with a combined value of close to one of those weapons.

Thats a pretty pathetic show of strength. especially for supposedly the ultimate force on the planet.

If China was surprised, it was because they were trying not to laugh.

Putins response was tepid at best.

The whole shebang was for domestic consumption. The MSM cheered, the Democrats called him presidential, the Putin BFF narrative was cut off at the knees, and Hillary used her still active security clearance to front run it to try and look relevent.


Is-Be's picture

Talking about being cute. Some of us should restrain out egos. Not everything is as it seems.

 I want this thing to work it's way out.

Joe Cool's picture

There's got to be a war somewhere....Even peace has its opposite...

roadhazard's picture

Get the fuck out of the MId East.

NIRP Diggler's picture

Can't.  Israel is in the middle east and they're pulling the puppet strings.

IranContra's picture

Iran is the Antichrist's country, pitting Christians against Arabs and Muslims with its ISIS.

ISIS: Iran’s Instrument for Regional Hegemony

The Trump-Arab alliance against Iran is the answer. As a good Christian, Putin should ally himself with those who are awaiting the return of Jesus: The Trump-Arab alliance.

Flybyknight's picture

Your article is a load of shit. Iraq was Sunni dominated before the USA invaded it. ISIS wounded have been treated by Israel.Israel is never been attacked by ISIS Three refutations of your propaganda and I didn't even have to try.

Herd Redirection Committee's picture

Iran = Aryan = white people of R1a haplogroup. 

Iranians are more closely related to Russians than they are Saudi Arabians.  But sure, lets ally with the Wahhabi head choppers, what could go wrong?

crossroaddemon's picture

This is geopolitics, not a religious crusade you idiot. 

Arnold's picture

We'll ask the Mah'di when he gets here.
Currently he is in French Polynesia, last I heard.

Oh, by the way, Shiva comes.

bshirley1968's picture

You don't know shit about the terms "antichrist" or "Christian".

There is not a more antichrist establishment on the planet than DC.  And people who run around thinking a cracker and some juice turns into the actual blood and flesh of Christ when they eat it are not only NOT Christian but are stupid as well.

serotonindumptruck's picture

It is a metaphor for cannibalism, and anyone who would practice such an absurd ritual certainly meet the definition of clinical insanity.

Akzed's picture

What does "shortly" mean in Rev. 1:1?

VoteSmarts's picture

KJV, alt is "soon". Point on point; ty for reminder.

Is-Be's picture

Leave the Aryan nation alone, you murderous arsehole.

They have enough trouble dealing with that Semitic death cult that has gripped their minds like the parasite that it is.

A product of florid schizophrenia.

Zoroastrianism is their native religion. How many countries have the Zoroastrians invaded?

Insight separates the sane from the insane.

BigFatUglyBubble's picture

The modus operandi was war, is war, and will always be war as long as USD backed by nothing is WRC. 

DisorderlyConduct's picture

I called it as a power play too. Think of who benefits...


LetThemEatRand's picture

The MSM is not "missing" anything.  The MSM is a propaganda arm of the deep state.  Assuming the missile attack's primary purpose was to "signal" that Trump is not afraid to kill people with the US military even if he does not actually want to start WWIII (not an unreasonable conclusion, though we won't know for a while if it is an accurate one), the last thing the MSM is going to do is report it.

The idea that Trump was merely "signaling" also does not contradict the idea that the swamp owns him.  The US does not NEED to signal to anyone that they will kill people at their discretion at any time, unless the point is to maintain empire.  If Trump held to his campaign promises, he would not signal that his administration intends more of the same.

BigFatUglyBubble's picture

The idea that Trump was merely "signaling" also does not contradict the idea that the swamp owns him.

Nail on head.

In conjunction with his other failed promises, this is yet just another signal to me that he was bs'ing from campaign day one.

Hillary is good people, we owe her a debt of gratitude, We must fight against the Freedom Caucus, etc, your memory is probably better than mine, the list goes on.

I don't mean to be cynical, but if Charles is bringing up this "7D Backgammon" stuff, then well...

LetThemEatRand's picture

I turned on Alex Jones for about 10 minutes yesterday and all I heard was explanations similar to the one in this article (actually, about 2 minutes of that and 8 minutes of commercials).  Completely missing from the analysis is why the US needs to make a show force in the middle east if the President intends to fulfill his campaign promise of getting the hell out of the middle east.

I also caught 10 minutes of Savage on a local radio station yesterday and he was tearing Trump a new one.

I would say the glass is half-empty because I'm pretty sure Jones has a larger listener base than Savage.  EDIT, glass is half full.  Just did a search and it looks like Savage has a much larger listener base.

BigFatUglyBubble's picture

YES!  I was very happy and somewhat surprised to hear about Savage turning on Trump. Exactly, he does have a big audience. Mark Levin and AJ did what I expected them to do.

Watch for Savage to A. quit, B. be fired, (perhaps do an independent youtube thing instead) C. have a "heart-attack" or fall out of balcony, or D. flip-flop back to pro war stance.

Caught_Fish's picture

As a realist I know the glass is always full.

Just a varying ratio of contaminated dihydrogen monoxide and atmospheric gasses.

Politicians are likewise always full.

Just a varying ratio of biologically processed food and hot air.

TheLastTrump's picture

Blah blah blah from a never ending source of anti Trumpisms.


Same as it ever was.

Herd Redirection Committee's picture

ZH was a center of Trump support, so when WE become critical, YOU should be getting worried.  Assuming you are paid to shill, of course. 

People aren't stupid.  The only 'vote Trump' rationale that ever made sense was "He's not Hillary" and now that he is trying his best Hillary impression, people are not pleased!  Don't pee  on people and tell them its raining!  Again, people are NOT stupid!

Is-Be's picture

Dunno about you, but I am the product of millions of generations of ruthless selection.

One misstep and you are out of the game.

So far, so good.