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 this sort of pathology, and they raised their sons to be, if anything, even worse.

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 Colonel Gaddafi seems cut from the same deluded, narcissistic cloth as Sadaam et al. He will be sincerely believing in his eventual victory right up to the moment they carry him out feet-first.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.