On Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi and other Narcissistic Autocrats

By any objective analysis, Colonel Gaddafi is toast, but his official statements still forecast victory, as they have throughout each defeat of his troops over the past 6 months. One can’t help recalling Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister who relayed his boss’s increasingly ludicrous reports of success as the regime was rapidly being crushed.

There is a school of thought in politics and international relations which holds that all the bluster from dictators under pressure is propaganda, in the sense that the leaders themselves realize it’s untrue. They are just trying to demoralize their opponents and rally their friends by intentionally overstating how well things are going. In their hearts, autocrats know the jig is up and that means a window for a negotiated settlement with them has opened.

That school of thought is usually wrong.

If you take a human being — particularly a male one — and for most or all of his life give him every material comfort while others are starving, encourage him to believe that other people are his inferior, and nurture a sense of entitlement in him through word and deed (e.g., letting him watch or participate in torture sessions), you will often produce what we shrinks call a malignant narcissist (or “A classic Cleckley psychopath” for those of my colleagues who may be scoring at home). I don’t mean “narcissist” in the colloquial sense of someone who worries too much about his looks and is a bit self-involved, I mean someone who literally believes that other human beings are merely objects for his self-gratification, and, that the usual constraints of human existence (e.g., everyone dies, no one gets everything he wants) do not apply to him.

It is a bizarre experience to interact with criminal narcissists. If you ask most murderers why they killed their victim, they will give some rationalization (e.g., “He shoved me — he asked for it”). But narcissists are more likely to be puzzled at your question: What do you mean ‘why did I kill him’, would you ask me why I sat on a chair? The most dangerous people in the narcissistic/psychopathic psychopathology cluster learn to act normal when it furthers their goals, but dictators don’t have to manipulate anyone to get what they want so they generally never develop “the mask of sanity”, as the highly-regarded psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley termed it. Col. Gaddafi and Sadaam Hussein are perfect examples of the naked, unbridled narcissism that is prevalent among dictators, and they raised their sons to be, if anything, even more psychopathic.

I could give a million examples of what these people are like when they have absolute political power, but will confine myself to one. One of the Iraqis refugees I met in Jordan was there for a simple reason: Uday Hussein had passed by her home and leered at her lovely teenage daughter. The woman packed up what possessions she could carry and fled the country with her daughter that very night, because she knew that sometime in the next few days her daughter would be taken from her by soldiers so that Uday could rape her, as he had so many women before. He particularly liked to rape brides at weddings after he had murdered their husbands-to-be. I didn’t have the displeasure of ever meeting him, but I am sure he would been mystified if I had asked him how on earth he could justify such evil acts: “Evil, Dr. Humphreys? How could it have been evil when I wanted to do it?”.

Over time, narcissistic autocrats become surrounded by toadies who enable the leader’s delusions about his superhuman nature. A post-war Iraqi Health Minister who is a dear friend of mine told me the story of the prior health minister, who when asked by Sadaam directly in a cabinet meeting for a candid appraisal of the ongoing war with Iran, said that he thought it was going badly and should be stopped. Sadaam had the Health Minister ax murdered and sent the pieces of the body to the widow. The lesson was not lost on the surviving members of the Cabinet.

The people around narcissistic leaders may or may not believe the leader’s delusions themselves, but in any event they discover that reinforcing the madness is the path to self-advancement. They shelter their leader from bad news and flatter flatter flatter, making the leader’s narcissism and lack of contact with reality even more pronounced. Although the culture of some U.S. White Houses has been described analogously over the years, it’s apples and oranges because there are so many more checks on the leader’s authority (i.e., doses of reality that throw cold water on delusions of omnipotence) in a democracy than in a dictatorship.

If you had injected Sadaam Hussein or his execrable sons with truth serum the day before their deaths and asked them to predict the future, they all would have forecast a glorious restoration of the family to power. I know much less about Libya than Iraq, but Gaddafi and his sons seems cut from the same deluded, narcissistic cloth as Sadaam et al. The Colonel will be sincerely believing in his eventual victory right up to the moment they carry him out of Tripoli feet-first.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

19 thoughts on “On Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi and other Narcissistic Autocrats”

  1. This is all very interesting, Keith. Is any of it in the slightest true?

    (a) Is it true for those individuals who WERE raised in this way? The most obvious examples are European royalty, and while a few of those were psychopaths, most of them appear to have been ordinary people. People who killed when it was politically necessary to kill, people who went to war; but NOT people who behave in the way you describe.
    Who is this supposed to apply to? A few very specific cherry picked individuals like Leopold and Loeb?

    (b) From what I can tell on Wikipedia, Saddam Hussein was raised by a poor family, and treated badly by his step father. There’s even less on Gaddafi, but what’s there suggests he had what was the equivalent of a conventional middle-class upbringing in Libya.

    This theory seems to have buggerall predictive power to me. I suspect the complete opposite theory (“If you take a human being — particular a male one — and from an early age beat him and treat him like dirt, he will become a vicious brute”) has at least the advantage of being true a whole lot more of the time, and describing a great many more people in the world.

  2. Mr. Handley’s theory is not the opposite of Mr. Humphrey’s. Both those who were given all material comforts and a sense of entitlement from an early age, and those who were brutalized from an early age (Hitler and Stalin, for example), could turn into malignant narcissists. I am not expressing a psychological opinion; I’m merely making a logical point.

    Mr. Handley might have a point with respect to European royalty, in that they were given all material comforts and a sense of entitlement from an early age and did not turn out like Saddam Hussein. Even that doesn’t prove anything, however. I’ve heard that the majority of people who were abused as children grow up to become abusers themselves, but a minority grow up determined not to treat their children the way they were treated, and tend to become pacifists or vegetarians or the like. There are too many variables involved for certain treatment always to have the same effect.

  3. The center-right blogger Walter Russell Mead had a post 16 August http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/08/16/blue-partisans-shorten-the-lines/ which has some salience: his view is that the US left, cossetted by the NYTimes and other mainstream papers, continues to see events as trending in its direction well after an objective viewing would see that they are not. He said, “Like the Germans announcing the retreat from Warsaw, the Times described the second defeat in Wisconsin as a success: Democrats shortened their lines.” His view is that the US left has more and more trouble making good strategy as it gets ungrounded from clear view of events: “To the extent that they think about it — as opposed to simply letting their little lights artlessly shine — liberal journalists seem to think that acting like cheerleaders strengthens their team. It doesn’t. That more conservative candidates and causes face hostile media scrutiny that liberal lions don’t makes the conservatives tougher and more battle tested. It can ground their political calculations more securely in reality..”

    My own favorite anecdote on this theme is Speer’s answer when his interrogator at Spandau asked him how he had figured out that the Reich was losing. Speer said, “The glorious victories of the Fatherland were coming ever closer to Berlin.”

  4. Maynard: I had a poor word choice which I have now corrected, “from an early age” has been replaced with “for most or all of his life”. I was thinking in that sentence specifically of the children of autocrats for whom the inculcation starts at birth and continues all their life, but for autocrats themselves the formative experiences could start later, e.g., if you become the ruler of Libya at age 28 and spend the next 42 years as an absolute ruler that will have a significant effect on how you see yourself and other people and how you act. (There is a camp in psychiatry that sees all personality development as over by age 5, but I am not a member of it.)

  5. But Keith, can’t you simply explain this as that the sort of person who takes part in a bloody coup detat likely ALREADY has that sort of personality? That an adult who demands/creates/seeks out that sort of environment rather than one that is more challenging and genuinely social is ALREADY a narcissist?

    My point is that does this model have ANY explanatory power? It strikes me as the sort of thing one might read about in novel by a Thomas Harris wannabe. Are there ANY numbers associated with it — a claim that, of previously normal people placed in such an environment, x% became psychopaths, whereas of people NOT placed in such an environment only y% became psychopaths? Something that makes it more than a just so story?

  6. Maynard: As Henry points out, you keep positing non-competing points as if they were competing. Might people who engage in bloody coups be more ruthless and self-seeking than the average person?….yes…would 40 years of absolute power make that person even more so?…again, yes.

  7. Keith, I’m not trying to be an ass here. I honestly mean my point. And my point is that I do not see anything in the story that you are giving. What explanatory power does it have? To take another example, much of what you say about “malignant narcissists”, as I understand it, also applies to autistics — the sense that human beings around them matter only as means to satisfy their ends. But autistics do not take this to pathology.

    You skipped from the (I think non-controversial) statement that leaders can live in a bubble of more or less extreme severity to the concept of a malignant narcissist; and it is THAT concept that I find unhelpful, not the claim that leaders live in a bubble.

    Maybe it’s a clash of cultures — you think of an explanation as something different from what I think of as an explanation. But (and I say this not as a dogmatic physicist, but as someone who loves history and much of the social sciences) I just don’t find what you said useful as an explanation because it’s the kind of thing that can be applied to any situation to give any result one likes — an explanation analogous to “it happened because god was angry with us”.

  8. The self annointed “king of the kings of Africa” allegedly had his daughter marry Idi Amin, the butcher of Uganda when Idi fled to Libya after being deposed in Uganda, because he wanted his adored Idi to be his son-in-law. Amin stated that Hitler “was right to burn six million Jews”. Sudanese president famously said “Gaddafi had a split personality, and that both parts were evil”.

  9. Maynard, you’re requesting a difficult experiment.

    Keith’s just saying that when people argue that no sane person would believe a tyrant’s propaganda, that’s true, but it could still be believed. Whether Keith’s proposition is scientifically testable is difficult to say, but you’ll notice it’s just a blog post.

  10. It’s interesting how everyone and their mother (who was a dictator) has had some sort of personality disorder: Alexander the Great, Hitler, and now dear old Gaddafi.

    What I’m curious about is how these autocrats have garnered (and kept) so many followers. Fear evidently plays a large role in keeping supporters in check, but that doesn’t quite explain the die-hard loyalists who would protect them at all costs. Surely some must realize, deep down, that they are not as invincible as their leader claims? Or have years of servitude and nationalistic propaganda deluded their minds as well?

  11. Maynard, I think that you are expecting a predictive theory where none was ever claimed. This isn’t a theory. It’s an observation. No one ever claimed that it is universally true. It’s not physics.

  12. Ivan: Some of them are likely deluded. Others are likely convinced that they are doomed without the dictator to protect them. If the rebellion/invasion/coup/whatever succeeds, the new authorities are going to wreak vengeance upon those that served the previous regime. No matter how hopeless the situation is, this set at least believes that a miniscule chance at victory has more present value than defecting does.

  13. Dave Schutz quotes Walter Russell Mead

    “more conservative candidates and causes face hostile media scrutiny that liberal lions don’t”

    This varies so completely from my own perceptions (I think I clearly remember “Teflon” Reagan and the supine behavior of the press in re: Whitewater, during the Gore and Kerry Presidential campaigns, and during the Bush 43 reign of error) that, if Mead were himself commenting here, I’d ask for evidence.

    But Mead is not commenting here, so all I can do is call shenanigans.

  14. They didn’t call Reagan “teflon” because nothing got thrown at him by the media. They called him “teflon” because of the media’s frustration that they couldn’t make any of it stick.

  15. dave schutz says:

    “The center-right blogger Walter Russell Mead …”

    I’m sorry, but when was the last time the WRM said something which was even remotely true?

  16. One can’t help but admire that the example WRM sets forward of the media and left ignoring reality is their failure to report the loss of two Republican state senate seats in Wisconsin as a Republican triumph.

  17. European royalty wasn’t especially raised to think they were unstoppable and got to have whatever they wanted. Usually there were powerful nobles and other factions they had to placate to stay in power, which would reduce the sense of invincibility. They had any number of powerful nations around them they needed to keep happy. They had a powerful Church that controlled behavior so they couldn’t just do whatever they wanted. There were strict rules of etiquette to be followed. They often viewed themselves as pawns of their families. Basically there were quite a few constraints that would prevent someone from thinking that they could do whatever they wanted.

  18. …Ussualy, when I hear about those narcisistic punk autocrats, comes thru my mind the scene in the movie “The Untouchables”, that in wich Al Caponne (De Niro) smashes the head of one of his “henchman” with a baseball’s bat to give a message to his other followers…I tend to believe that any of those guys would often love to do such a thing like that,but given the globalization of the media, they don’t dare to.

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