OF ESAU AND AFGHANISTAN
In this week’s Torah portion we see Jacob’s joyful reunion with his brother Esau. Actually, Jacob’s reunion is less than joyful. Jacob is extremely fearful of his brother.
In this week’s Torah portion we see Jacob’s joyful reunion with his brother Esau.
Actually, Jacob’s reunion is less than joyful. Jacob is extremely fearful of his brother. Even after years of separation, Esau hates Jacob for 'cheating' him -- once out of the birthright and the second time out of his inheritance. Nonetheless, according to the Torah’s preeminent commentator Rashi, when Jacob and Esau greet each other there is genuine joy in Esau's greeting. Of course, other traditions tell us that Esau actually tried to kill Jacob by biting his neck -- hardly the stuff of true brotherly love.
In the days before meeting Esau, Jacob prepares for the meeting in three ways. First, he divides his camp so that Esau can not, in one fell swoop, eliminate the nation of Israel. Second, he prays to Hashem for help. And third, he tries to buy Esau off.
It is the third element, Jacob's attempt to buy Esau off, that I want to concentrate on. As the West prepares to create a new government in Afghanistan -- and perhaps Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the PA territories -- we will try to buy the locals off. Basically the West will use its greatest strength, its economic strength, to try to build a Pax Americana in these countries.
There are intriguing parallels to this week’s Torah portion. Jacob, a tremendously wealthy man and a master of realpolitik, employs a special technique in trying to buy his brother's peace. While there are arguments about how successful Jacob was, the West still has a lot to learn from his approach.
The cornerstone of Jacob’s approach is a decision not to send a single large gift -- instead Jacob elects to send a series of gifts. Rashi explains that a gift seems larger when received in parts. With one drove of animals following another, the arriving flocks would seem to stretch to the horizon. This image that Jacob creates is a compelling one -– and it can inspire a similar approach in today's world.
When I was a little kid my dad would make us memorize the Ten Commandments in English. By way of convincing us that we were behind the times he would explain quite loudly that Alexander Hamilton -- who wasn't even Jewish -- knew the Ten Commandments in Hebrew at the age of 3. I never figured out whether this was true, but I did learn a few other things about Mr. Hamilton. For those needing a slight refresher course in American history, Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. He was also a member of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Most famously, he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, the man who wanted to be king of the United States.
From my father's point of view the most important thing Hamilton ever did was decide to have the federal government honor the debt of the states and exchange IOUs from the war of independence and the establishment of the country with interest-bearing bonds. Hamilton's decision, decried by Jefferson and Madison, basically put the federal government in tremendous debt. Why was this one of Hamilton’s greatest acts? Because this debt was critical to the survival of the United States in those early years.
Now I know what most of you are thinking -- why was debt critical? Well, this week’s Torah portion has the answer. By creating interest-bearing debt, Hamilton created a gift ‘that stretched to the horizon.' After Hamilton's move lots of people from citizens to foreign governments suddenly had these bonds. The bonds were paid out by the U.S. government over time. Thus, for the money to continue to flow, the U.S. government had to continue to exist. The scheme worked. Today America's massive debt not only means we owe a lot of money -- it also means that many foreign countries and even our own citizens have an intrinsic financial interest in our survival.
When Jacob gave the separate droves of animals to Esau he was passing Esau an unconscious message. For these animals to keep coming, I have to continue to live. A single gift might whet Esau's appetite for sheep, but it wouldn't leave Esau with any desire to keep Jacob around.
When looking at Afghanistan, the Western powers will doubtless put together a massive aid package of billions of dollars to help secure the future government. This money will be piled into Afghanistan much as it was into Russia a decade ago or Kosovo more recently. But this massive gift won’t bring peace to Afghanistan. It won't bring peace, in part, because the gift won't stretch to the horizon. The fighting factions of Afghanistan will have no vested interest in a stable, democratic, constitutional, government existing. They will only be interested in getting the biggest possible piece of the aid package, through bribery, coercion, and straight out theft. The answer to the stability question in Afghanistan is not just wealth -- it is interest in future wealth.
Reflecting on this week's Torah portion and the United States' own experience, I would suggest an alternative to a massive aid package. I think the Western powers should set up a fund that pays a significant amount of money each year to each Afghani citizen. The money should only be paid out if the Afghani government fits certain criteria -– the government must be operative, it must guarantee certain liberties, etc... Provinces that break off from the government would lose their rights to this money. Over time, the payments would be eliminated; with time the Afghani government would become more stable and the Afghani people (whether in militias or not) would realize for themselves the financial and other benefits of a liberal, free, and stable government. For good measure, this 'debt' could be a special issue of the U.S. government -- creating Afghani citizens with an interest not only in their own country's stability but with an interest in the stability of the United States as well.
A recent survey of civil wars determined that the vast majority -- while on the surface being driven by ideology or religion -- actually had a financial foundation in a cash crop susceptible to looting. Thus, Sierra Leone's civil war is actually over the diamond mines, Sudan's civil war is actually over oil, Colombia's civil war is actually over cocaine crops and the Congo’s civil war is over mineral rights. There are many other examples. The financial incentives cross the spectrum. The most interesting might be the Phillipine guerillas’ kidnapping scheme in which tourists are a cash crop. Even in Afghanistan, resources have become a key part of the battle. Not long ago, Bin Ladin purchased the Taliban’s support for an international terror campaign. If ideology alone were driving the current war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, the Northern Alliance wouldn't be such a tangled mess and Taliban commanders wouldn’t defect for cash payments.
We can see again and again that financial issues lay at the root of many civil wars. Just as Jacob’s multiple flocks of sheep made Esau a stakeholder in Jacob’s survival, payments tied to a government’s existence would make the Afghani people stakeholders in a stable Afghani government. Using this recipe, the common fuel of civil wars –- cash -– would be undermined by Uncle 'Sugar Daddy' Sam.
In short, Jacob knew it 4,000 years ago, and Alexander Hamilton knew it 200 years ago: money may talk, but interest-bearing bonds can talk louder.
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