October 21, 2014

Weekend Essay: Biblical Lessons on Foreign Policy and Statism


Whatever your view of religion, the Bible is a terrific source for history and political analysis, often in the passages least quoted today. Here are two examples.

1. Statism

When the Israelites asked to have a king, the prophet Samuel (Chapter 8) told them, at divine direction, that a king would make their sons:

“Plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers [crony capitalism!]. He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage [far lower taxes than today!] and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers [entitlements? Crony capitalism?].”

In short, he would make the people “work for him…and you shall become his slaves. The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen [elections!]; and the Lord will not answer you on that day.”

Was that day November 6, 2012? Seriously, though, the idea that excessive statism is extremely dangerous is hardly a new one, especially in a country that was born by rebelling against a king against whom similar complaints were lodged.  Of course, the end of the Book of Judges has some remarkable stories that tell of the dire effects of anarchy with the repeated phrase, there was no king in those days so everyone did what they wanted to do. Finding a balance between too much anarchy and too much statism has been the challenge ever since.

2. Foreign Policy

The basic principles of statecraft aren’t new. You can learn from the Bible that people understood four thousand years ago about things that America’s current leaders have forgotten today.

When the two Israelite spies sent to assess Jericho’s defenses, spoke to their informant, Rahab, she told them how Israelite strength, determination, and thus credibility–the people of Jericho had heard how God favored the Israelites–had already determined the outcome of the battle. I know you shall win, she explained, “Because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you.” (Joshua 2)

But after the great Israelite victory at Jericho, Joshua became over-confident and so accepted bad intelligence that only a small force would be needed to take the city of Ai. He sent just one-tenth of his troops. But as a result the Israelites lost that battle. Even though our casualties were only 36 men out of 3000, the troops panicked and ran. It was a self-inflicted defeat.

Joshua understood the danger in this event:

“O Lord, what can I say after Israel has turned tail before its enemies? When the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land hear of this, they will turn upon us and wipe out our very name from the earth.” (Joshua 7:8-9).

But rather than take responsibility for his error, Joshua or others in the leadership concluded that a man had stolen three items from the looting of Jericho that were supposed to be consecrated for God. That was the equivalent in that time of making a video that insulted a religion. The thief and all of his family were stoned to death.

Well about four thousand years later what do Americans expect is going to happen with  incidents like Benghazi,  not to mention enthroning America’s enemies in Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Syria? As everyone in the Middle East understands, shows of weakness—and even worse of self-flagellation, of apology and the loss of self-confidence—only persuade your enemies to hit you harder.

In the Biblical case, the war went much better after the scapegoat was purged. Perhaps having found an explanation for the defeat restored morale. And renewed victories—starting with the conquest of Ai by the entire Israelite army—rebuilt credibility with the enemy and demoralized them.

The United States faces the problem of credibility but it isn’t going to solve the issue by stoning a video-maker but by having a leader who understands the nature of the enemy, that leadership trumps apology, and that America’s enemies may be quaking but mainly with laughter.

This article was originally published on PJMedia.

About Barry Rubin

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)