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Lucky Bastards — or Geniuses?

Are some world leaders just lucky — or are they brilliant visionaries?

March 21, 2003

Are some world leaders just lucky — or are they brilliant visionaries?

Throughout much of the 1980s, German television viewers often thought that one of the funniest moments of each year was when Helmut Kohl, the then-German Chancellor, delivered his annual TV address to the nation around the beginning of the new year.

Unfailingly, he would open up his address by saying: “Dear fellow citizens, including those in the eastern part of our country!”

Just what was he dreaming about, most Germans wondered? East Germany was behind the Iron Curtain. And people who tried to escape and cross the border did so at the risk of being shot and killed in the act.

Under those circumstances, it seemed a bit detached from reality to talk to those people in the eastern part of the country as compatriots.

Dream on, Helmut, the refrain went. Of course, the implausibly naive opening lines which Germany’s Chancellor of the era unfailingly recited only seemed to match the general image of a country bumpkin.

Hailing from the small town of Oggershein in the state of Rhineland-Palativate, Mr. Kohl nurtured his folksy, provincial image — never shaking his home region’s accent or his profound love for “Sanmagen,” a stuffed pig’s stomach.

Despite the outright laughter Mr. Kohl triggered in many quarters, he kept on talking each year about the “fellow citizens” in the east. As the German economy weakened during his reign toward the late 1980s, the laughing grew louder.

“What an idiot,” people said, “trying to assuage us with that naive patriotism thing. Unification is never going to happen, never. At least, not without a nuclear war — or some other kind of military confrontation. And we surely don’t want that, do we?"

The consensus grew even among Mr. Kohl’s own supporters that he looked ever more a failure in his high office. Not the right man for the time in which he had been elected to lead the country. And then, almost out of the blue, a funny thing happened.

The “iron” curtain became porous — and East Germans and other East Europeans managed to escape from their depressed lives under communism. Finally, after some high-stakes diplomacy, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader of the era, did something nobody had believed possible.

He in effect declared the end of communism. It was as if a clown appeared on the center stage of a circus, saying to the still frightened audience: “Poof, the scary high-wire act we have been presenting to you for the last several decades was just that — an illusion. Now, let’s get back to real life.” The lights went on — and freedom arrived.

In short order, the East German government collapsed. The first truly democratic elections were held — and barely a year after the wall fell in November 1989, Germany was reunited on October 3, 1990.

The transition out from decades of economic mismanagement and depravation was hard. In fact, it is still going on.

Germans, meanwhile, woke up with a real surprise on their hands. Having been conditioned that unification with the former eastern states of the country was highly unlikely, they had basically forgotten about the people living there. But now, unification had become a reality.

Still confused, they looked around for orientation. How did this happen? Did anybody foresee this strange development?

And that was the moment when they woke up — in amazement at the flawless instinct of their presumably bumbling leader. It was he who had seen the future — and told them about it. Only that they had chosen not to believe him.

Deep down, even big-time political opponents of Mr. Kohl’s — being honest with themselves for a moment — had to concede that he had been on to something big and truly momentous for a long time.

Now, they were faced with the uncomfortable task of revising their own outlook on the world, especially all those seemingly eternal assumptions on which their world view was based.

So what does all of that have to do with George W. Bush and the present time? Simply this: President Bush is considered by quite a few people around the world as somebody who is in over his head — a country bumpkin much like Mr. Kohl.

His meteoric rise from running a baseball team to Governor of Texas — and then President of the United States of America — certainly did not leave much time to get caught up on the various intricacies of running the most powerful country in the world.

The firmness of his belief in certain priorities — especially on the question of regime change in Iraq — seems almost counterfactual. It is as if the great leader of the Western world was a one-trick pony — desperately holding on to playing the “Saddam Horror Show” because he knows little else.

But also like Mr. Kohl, it may just turn out that — all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding — Mr. Bush is extraordinarily lucky. Against all odds of the conventional doubters, maybe — just maybe — he will get away with his plain act of calling Saddam’s (and really the world’s) bluff.

True, an easy liberation — and, more importantly, democratization — of Iraq may currently still seem as improbable as German unification did throughout the Cold War.

But it is worth remembering that some leaders are just extraordinarily lucky in picking their targets — and being able to make it all happen.

At present, President Bush surely seems headed for a go-for-broke strategy. But Saddam may be taken out without a prolonged war — and Mr. Bush would be able to claim that he had planned it that way all along.

If that were to happen, a lot of principled people around the world would find themselves with egg on their faces — just as so many of Germany's smart elites had before.

The world should be so lucky.