Jewish World Review April 21, 1999 /5 Iyar 5759
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But a brash young leader takes over from the older generation as head of state. He disposes of his elders and begins to impose his personality on the world, as he has longed to do. He is vain, ambitious, emotionally unstable, unpredictable. People make nervous jokes about his egomania, which some find charming, others in bad taste. A famous one runs: "He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the stag at every hunt, the corpse at every funeral."
Before long, world tensions increase. The new leader feels the need, after making an embarrassing number of empty threats, to accomplish something that goes beyond bluff and bluster. He sees an opportunity to make war by proxy on Serbia, and as he preens the whole world order collapses.
It's a familiar story. But it's not of Bill Clinton in the 1990s I speak, but of the 1890s, when Kaiser Wilhelm II took control of Germany from Bismarck. Like Kaiser Bill, President Bill inherited an orderly and secure world thanks to the sacrifices of his predecessors. And Clinton has the opportunity to imitate his namesake in another way: out of his indolence, vanity, mendacity, and neglect, to hurl our relatively peaceful world into an unthinkable - and utterly avoidable-conflagration.
In some ways, Wilhelm was a worse man than William. He hated his English mother, who was a daughter of Queen Victoria, and personally made sure that she was denied proper doses of morphine while she was dying in terrible agony of breast cancer. He was unusual in his family in having a strong anti-Semitic streak. He was a crude practical joker. Don't waste your time on Stephanopoulos--Prince von Bülow's hilarious memoirs are far better: the Kaiser slapping the King of Bulgaria on the backside in public, calling his guest the King of Italy a "dwarf" in front of the whole diplomatic corps, cutting with his pen-knife the suspenders of a general on board his yacht, and manufacturing one diplomatic crises after another by his inability to control his tongue.
What drove Wilhelm towards catastrophe? Some historians argue that after he destroyed Germany's internal political efficiency, he grew tired of the criticisms of brilliant men like Weber that his diplomacy produced only "noisy intermezzi and theatrical methods." Blustering and empty threats he often followed by climb-downs. Finally, the interpretation goes, in order to prove his seriousness, Wilhelm seized the chance to plunge Europe into a war that killed millions, and facilitated the Bolshevik revolution in Russia that killed scores of millions more.
Four political leaders in our century have changed the course of history solely by force of personality. At their head is Hitler; then, I think Reagan and Thatcher, then Wilhelm II. The historian Golo Mann, Thomas Mann's son, had a test for historical necessity he called "unthinking." How many factors would one have to "unthink" in order radically to change an historical event. To have avoided the gulag and campaigns of mass extermination and deliberate starvation in the Communist countries it would not have sufficed to eliminate the figures of Lenin, Stalin and Mao-the barbarities they relished are inherent in the system. On the other hand, had there been no FDR, no Churchill, no Wilson, no JFK, then similar characters would have emerged, more or less competent by matters of degree not orders of magnitude.
But it is tragically simple to unthink the holocaust: no one could have brought it about - despite all the anti-Semitism in Germany laid out by recent historians in loving detail - except Adolf Hitler. No substitute could possibly have pulled it off.
No one but Reagan and Thatcher could have shaken off the received ideas of their country's establishments, right and left. No one but them could have broken the grip of the idea of the welfare state, and the necessity for a cold war.
Even those alternative leaders of their own camp who shared their views would have been content to rub along somehow as they always had done.
In Bill Clinton we are confronted with another figure out of whose particular personality great events can be summoned. Will Clinton end the century with another avoidable bloody act of self-destruction? The buffoons Wilhelm and William have this in common: their chief accomplishment-- a world war in 1914, and a damned decent shot at one in 1999 -- they reached for not out of conviction (as even Hitler did, evil and loony as it was), but out of irrational, willful, almost childishly wayward behavior. Did we want to protect the Albanian Kosovars-then why did we prevent the OSCE observers from being armed? Did we disapprove of ethnic states ridding themselves of minorities-then why did we connive at the ethnic cleansing of the historically Serb regions of Croatia in 1995 (resulting in 600,000 refugees in Serbia today)? No one can say.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of Clinton's case against Serbia, his administration's timing, tactics, and lack of planning and resolve have brought about the total depopulation of Kosovo.
The debacle now threatens an
extravaganza of diplomatic and military disasters that could end either in a
major war, or in the marginalizing or neutering of NATO - all avoidable, none
serving any discernible principle. Unless he can find some way to betray the
Kosovars (and if anyone could pull it off, he can), our President in his
retirement will be watching generations to come pay the price of his folly,
as did the ex-Kaiser from his comfortable exile, the earlier Bill in Holland,
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.