The Eye of Sauron now turns to Chechnya, er Syria, I mean Egypt, oh wait Syria again…

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As I first conceptualized this post I could hear Ian
McKellan sonorously intoning these words. 
I really enjoyed the geopolitical lessons of LOTR (if only Denethor had
systematically maintained Gondor’s strategic alliances he would have been
better able to deter Mordor I whispered to my wife as we watched the movie –
she told me to shut up.)

I’d been thinking about the Eye of Sauron as a metaphor for
how top-level decision-making works (kind of an obsession of mine!) for some
time when Slate ran an article comparing Sauron’s Eye to the surveillancestate.  It’s a good article, but does not
quite capture the essence of the Eye (although it does a good job comparing
Mordor to a police state – another book that does that is Watership Down).  Sauron’s Eye can only look upon a place at a
time, whereas the NSA can effectively read pretty much everything all the
time.  However, the ability of
policy-makers to act on this information is limited by what they choose to
focus on – that’s the essence of the Eye.
When Sauron looks upon something, he (it?) can unleash huge
armies, death from the skies, and his creepy voice that can tempt the weak and
twist the strong.  Not unlike the US
which can bomb anywhere in the world at will, deploy soldiers and Special
Forces, and finally just send compelling messages.  (Most people tend to find a direct contact
from the President pretty compelling.) 
This is not to say the US is Mordor (I believe we are on the whole a
force for the good but one can certainly see an alternate perspective.)
LOTR ends with the good guys (Men of the West!) launching a
huge attack on Mordor, not because they can win but because it will distract
Sauron while the Hobbits schlep the ring to Mt. Doom to destroy it.  (Sorry if I gave anything away – it’s still a
good read or view.)  The plan works,
because Sauron’s armies are drawn away to counter the attacking army while the
Eye itself has to focus on the battle.
I’ve been thinking about this since April when, after the
Boston bombing, suddenly everyone was interested in Chechnya again.  But, Chechnya is a complicated far-away place
with a surplus of clan warfare and crime, which has also been brutalized by the
Russians.  How much effort does the
President want to expend on this kind of thing? 
What’s more, anything the US would want to do in Chechnya would involve
Russia.  So first the President has to
engage Russia (and probably give them stuff) to get better access to Chechnya
and then the pot of gold is getting sucked into the perennial Hatfields &
McCoys of the Caucuses.  If we had dozens
of attackers coming to the US from Chechnya killing hundreds a year maybe we’d
have to do exactly that.  But we
don’t.  I’m sure on an administrative
level the appropriate national security agencies put additional modest
resources on the Chechnya beat, but that’s about it especially since Syria
flared up.
Syria is a real war and getting involved in a way that would
clearly tilt that scales would be a massive commitment.  In the debate about going into Iraq,
Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly warned, “This is going to suck the
oxygen out of everything else we are trying to do.”
One thing the Iraq war did do was devour the time and energy
of the decision-makers.  I heard that at
the height of the violence there was a Deputies Committee meeting everyday
about Iraq.  That is an enormous amount
of work.  The Deputies are the number 2s
(busy people!) at the key departments (State, Defense, Justice National
Security Council and usually several others.) 
They try to resolve issues and if they can’t tee them up for the
Principals – the big bosses.  The
Deputies Committee really is the working group for the government.  So if they were spending all of their time on
Iraq it meant other stuff isn’t getting to the Deputies – let alone to the
President.
We just learned that military options in Syria would cost at least a billion dollars a month.  If there were a clear benefit to the expenditure it would be a bargain.  But we aren’t sure where a war in Syria would lead.  But it would become the dominant item on the President’s desk for the foreseeable future at the expense of innumerable other priorities.
Now Egypt is in the headlines.  The ideal policy for Egypt is obvious – use
financial aid and the need for international legitimacy to press the Egyptian
junta to develop and follow-through on a Constitutional process while
liberalizing the economy.  By the way, we
sort of tried that already with the Gore-Mubarak Commission in the 1990s –
check out my paper on a similar effort with Russia.  Both efforts had mixed results.  First, getting other countries to do what you
want is really hard (that should be IR 101). 
And to have a chance of getting other countries to do what you want the
President needs to sit on them.  So my
proposed Egypt policy would require the President to be desk officer for Egypt
and Egypt just isn’t that important.
Why can’t the President set a policy and have Ambassadors
and what have you carry it out?  Without
clear and direct Presidential support, the country in question will ignore or
slow-walk the President’s envoys.  Serious threats require follow-through to be
credible and for that the President will have to put in real effort to make
them happen – Ambassadors usually don’t have a sufficient arsenal.
Another way to view it is like parenthood (another hobby of mine.)  You want your kid to NOT do X and
TO do Y.  The kid really doesn’t want to
do Y and has a lot more energy to devote to the issue than you do.  You have a job, maybe other kids, a house to
run etc.  Your kid has nothing to think
about but this particular problem.  So
the kid may not do X, but will successfully distract you enough to avoid doing
Y.  If you are willing to focus your day
on getting the kid to do Y – it can probably happen but then you won’t get to
clean the kitchen, watch your shows, or play Sudoku on your phone.  You managed to get the kid to not do X, but
do you really want to put in the enormous extra effort for Y to happen?
It would be kind of like that with Egypt.  They’d help on security in the Sinai but resist any serious economic liberalization or establishing a real Constitution.  We’d hold back aid, but then they’d warn that without aid the couldn’t control the country – you can see how this goes.

That being said, sometimes the US has had successful foreign
policies that have nudged along unstable states without completely overwhelming the President.  I often point to Plan Columbia as a case
where the US spent some money and provided expertise and the situation in
Columbia improved dramatically.  There
have been others.  I am deeply curious
about how to build the structure that will allow successful US policies without
overwhelming the President.  It seems like
a useful capability for the United States to develop.  Perhaps a topic for some enterprising PhD student…
Until the Eye of Sauron learns to delegate and establish some networked institutions among the orcs, it will be forced to flit from crisis to crisis.

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