“A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran, deteriorated in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.”
With these words delivered from the Oval Office on March 4, 1987, President Ronald Reagan finally accepted responsibility for what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. In addition to trading arms for hostages, members of the NSC (National Security Council) staff transferred funds from these transactions to support the Nicaraguan contras.
Although official inquiries concluded that Reagan never ordered or even knew about the subsequent transfer of funds to the contras, his hands-off management style was mentioned as contributing to the scandal. The environment created by his self- described style of finding “the right individuals to do the job, and then let them go to it,” allowed overzealous staffers to feel that they could “go to it” in any way possible.
Dinesh D’Souza, a Reagan policy analyst and biographer elaborated upon this point. “From what we know of his politics, Reagan would have loved the outcome. But from what we know of his character, he is not likely to have approved the means. Probably Reagan’s aides took his general plea, ‘I want you to do what you can to keep the contras together,” as a carte blanche to use virtually any means necessary to achieve that end (Ronald Reagan, Simon and Schuster, New York 1997; p.247).”
Further on in the speech, Reagan himself acknowledged this problem. “Much has been said about my management style, a style that’s worked successfully for me during eight years as governor of California and for most of my presidencyWhen it came to managing the NSC staff, let’s face it, my style didn’t match its previous track record.”
The leadership lesson from the Iran Contra Affair is clear. A leader is responsible for the actions of his staff and people, especially when those actions are a function or result of the work environment he has fostered. A derivative responsibility for the leader is to have his hand on the pulse of his people and be aware of the effects of his leadership style. A leader can never claim he didn’t know – it’s his job to know.
In light of this, we can better understand the exchange that took place in this week’s parshah between Avraham and Avimelech. Realizing that G-d was constantly with Avraham, Avimelech felt it prudent to make a treaty with him. According to Rashi (Bereishit 21:22) Avimelech was impressed with the fact that Avraham had defeated the kings in war, survived the destruction of Sodom and that Sarah conceived in old age. With the long-term strategic picture in mind, Avimelech identified Avraham as a key figure to have as an ally. However, before Avraham made the treaty he rebuked Avimelech regarding the wells that Avimelech’s servants had stolen from Avraham.
In what can only be described as self-righteous indignation, Avimelech claimed (21:26): “I do not know who did this thing nor did you ever inform me, and I never heard anything about this until today.” The Seforno explains the exchange as follows: Avraham accused Avimelech of allowing evil people to reside in his midst and for the robbery that took place in his jurisdiction. Avimelech defended himself by saying that there are two ways a king can know of a problem. The first is if the victim informs the king, and the second is if the population at large protests the evil that was perpetrated. Since Avraham had never lodged a complaint prior to this time, nor had there been a public protest, Avimelech had no idea of the theft.
Oddly enough, Avraham does not respond to Avimelech’s argument. Rather, he immediately prepares for the treaty ritual, albeit in a manner which will demonstrate to everybody that the wells are rightfully his. Did Avraham’s silence indicate that he accepted Avimelech’s defense? I believe the answer is unequivocally, no. Earlier in the parshah (20:11) Avraham explained to Avimelech that the reason he did not publicize that Sarah was his wife was that he sensed there was no “fear of G-d” in Avimelech’s land. The absence of “fear of G-d” was a systemic problem that affected Avimelech’s entire society. It was the root of all their problems and sins. Regardless of whether Avimelech was himself a moral person, his people were not moral people.
When Avraham rebuked Avimelech regarding the wells, he wasn’t accusing him of stealing them himself. He was probing to see what type of leader he was. Avraham understood that the theft occurred because the people did not fear G-d. He wanted to ascertain whether Avimelech was a negative leader, an inept leader or a constructive leader. If he were a negative leader, Avimelech would have simply argued with Avraham on the merits of the case and claimed the well to be his. If he were a productive leader, he would have identified the underlying cause of the crime, namely the fearlessness of G-d, and assured Avraham that he would address the problem. However, Avimelech’s actual response demonstrated that he was an inept leader. He claimed he didn’t know. Avraham knew that leaders need to understand their society in order to lead them effectively. Avraham didn’t respond to Avimelech because his answer explained everything. Avimelech was irrelevant. There was no reason to respond to him.
Had Avimelech been able to see into the future, he might have taken a page from Reagan’s playbook and responded to Avraham in a manner similar to the way Reagan concluded his speech that March evening: “You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”
Rabbi David Hertzberg is the Principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Questions and comments can be emailed to him at Mdrabbi@aol.com.