Diplomacy: The 'crazy Nixon approach' and its Jewish roots

A Foreign Ministry seminar takes a look at diplomacy through the lens of traditional Jewish texts.

FOREIGN DIPLOMATS take part in a one-day seminar of Jewish text and diplomacy organized by the Foreign Ministry.  (photo credit: MOSHE DOBINER/FOREIGN MINISTRY)
FOREIGN DIPLOMATS take part in a one-day seminar of Jewish text and diplomacy organized by the Foreign Ministry.
Jeffrey Goldberg, in his much-discussed article on Barack Obama’s foreign policy that appeared this week in The Atlantic, quoted the US president discussing a critique of his own foreign policy: No one in the world ever worried he would do anything unhinged or completely crazy.
“I think that the best argument you can make on the side of those who are critics of my foreign policy is that the president doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough,” Goldberg quoted Obama as saying. “He doesn’t maybe react in ways that might cause people to think, Wow, this guy might be a little crazy.”
Goldberg referred to this as the “crazy Nixon approach,” the practice of confusing and frightening the enemy by making them think you are capable of committing irrational acts.
Obama responded: “But let’s examine the Nixon theory. So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos [during the Vietnam war] than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote our interests?” In other words, in Obama’s mind, the “let them think I’m nuts” approach to international relations is not all that it is cracked up to be. But this approach to diplomacy predates Nixon by thousands of years, and – as about 20 Foreign Ministry employees recently discovered during a seminar in the ministry on diplomacy and Jewish sources – goes back to the times of David.
The Foreign Ministry workers were taking part in an 11-week seminar titled Diplomatic Source, which looked at various aspects of diplomacy through the eyes of the traditional Jewish texts: the Torah, the Prophets, the Mishna, the Talmud and Rabbinic literature.
One section of one of the seminars was called “the head of the household has gone crazy,” and verses from Samuel were quoted to illustrate how sometimes it is necessary have others think you have lost it.
“These words worried David and he became very much afraid of King Achish of Gath. So he concealed his good sense from them; he feigned madness for their benefit. He scratched marks on the doors of the gate and let his saliva run down his beard. And Achish said to his courtiers, ‘You see the man is raving, why bring him to me? Do I lack madmen that you have brought this fellow to rave for me? Should this fellow enter my house?’” (Samuel 21:13-16) Another selection to prove the point was culled from the writings of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, a tale called “The Turkey-Prince.”
“Once the king’s son went mad,” begins the tale, which also shows how feigning madness can be used for beneficial purposes. “He thought he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit under the table without any clothes on, pulling at bits of bread and bones like a turkey. None of the doctors could do anything to help him or cure him, and they gave up in despair. The king was very sad.”
A wise man eventually told the king that he could cure his son, and pretended that he, too, was a turkey.
In this way he was able to eventually clothe the king’s son and bring him back into the house.
The purpose behind these examples from the texts, pointed out Kaveh Shafran, the moderator of the seminar, was to underline the point that at times it is beneficial to create the image of someone able to act irrationally.
“When is it good for a diplomat to break the rules of reason and rationality and take unexpected action that breaks the pattern of regular thinking?” he asked.
Looking at the sources, Shafran maintained, may provide some guidance.
Shafran, a former Army Radio diplomatic correspondent who now runs training seminars on how to appear in the media, led the seminar in conjunction with Kolot, the pluralistic yeshiva working to make classical Jewish texts accessible to the country’s leaders in the hope they will incorporate values gleaned from those texts into their public roles.
The seminar was conducted through the ministry’s training department, which regularly gives extracurricular learning opportunities for the diplomats, generally focusing on language acquisition and leadership training. Shafran hopes that in addition to learning how to speak Arabic, French, Spanish and German, funds will be made available to put this type of seminar permanently in the basket of tools provided to diplomats.
The idea behind the seminars, he explained, is to show how it is possible to use Jewish sources to inform various diplomatic activities, such as public diplomacy, messaging, and speaking before both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
The diplomats looked at the paradigm of Abraham as a diplomat, Isaiah’s vision of peace, Joshua honoring agreements with the Gibeonites, and the rabbis who met and negotiated with Roman leaders at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple – and all that with the goal of trying to put the issues the country’s diplomats are dealing with today into some kind of larger Jewish perspective.
Today’s diplomats are facing numerous challenges, and it is instructive, he said, to look at how these same types of challenges were dealt with thousands of years ago, and how it is possible to use Jewish texts today to gain insights.
“The same challenges we deal with today, such as how to treat refugees, was dealt with in the past in the Torah, and by the Rambam,” he said. One topic of the course was tikkun olam vs the halachic idea that one should provide first for the poor of one’s own city.
Another was looking at the how the Talmud dealt with the selling of arms.
The idea, Shafran explained, is to both look through a diplomat’s glasses at the ancient Jewish texts and, vice versa, “to look through the prism of the ancient text on modern Israeli diplomacy.”
If Obama can quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as he has done, then certainly Israeli emissaries abroad should also have the ability to quote from classic Jewish sources to illustrate their points and animate their speeches, he said.
Akiva Tor, both one of the initiators of the seminar and one of its participants, said there is a tendency to “often think of the Jewish tradition as lacking in foreign policy. But Jews have had a diplomatic tradition going back almost to the beginning of Jewish history: Abraham’s interaction with the people of the land, Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s dealing with Rome. The texts are full of engagement about issues such as how to present a case in a persuasive way, and what is more important, to look good or speak well.”
Tor, who has been posted abroad in Taiwan, The Hague, and most recently as consul-general in San Francisco, is head of the Foreign Ministry’s bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions. A familiarity with the traditional Jewish sources, he said, helped him in his diplomatic work in San Francisco when he spoke with rabbis, as he did on numerous occasions.
“The best way to talk to rabbis is through the language of the Torah,” he said. But not only with rabbis.
Tor recently met a group of visiting British Methodists who were very critical of Israel. Before the meeting he thought about how it would be best to break through the barriers and decided to open with a story from the Torah, when Judah revealed himself to Joseph to plead for the release of his brother Benjamin.
“This is the way we feel,” Tor told the visitors, “like Judah sitting before Joseph, that nothing we can say will exculpate us, that we are guilty no matter what.”
The group, he said, understood that they were speaking to someone who took Scripture seriously, “so how bad can he be?” he imagined them saying.
Whether or not that was indeed their conclusion, Tor said that there is much in the classical texts that can inform the work and conversation of Israeli diplomats.
The purpose of the Foreign Ministry seminar was to make some of those texts available to those diplomats.