Ten Miles Square


August 21, 2011 5:35 PM On Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi and other Narcissistic Autocrats

By Keith Humphreys

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]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


  • Goldilocks on August 22, 2011 9:14 AM:

    Sorry to say, but your lumping Saddam Hussein in with Moammar Gaddafi is cheap at best and self-serving narcissism at worse. Other than "not-American", there is little relevant similarity between these two characters, particularly in relation to their respective demises.

    It must be obvious, even to you Professor Humphreys, that while Gaddafi is being deposed by his own people, assisted by a United Nations mandate and international participation, Hussein's removal was murder at the hands of gang of vainglorious, lying, dressed-up, foreign opportunists.

    Whatever our personal opinions about Saddam Hussein and his conduct, he held his country together successfully for several decades which is a darned sight more than the Bushies achieved after their occupation. Let's face reality on this. The Arab Spring has revealed popular discontent with the ruling regimes in the countries involved. The deposing and assassinating of Saddam Hussein was none other than an act of illegal aggression by a super-power fallen into the hands of undisciplined, irresponsible hoodlums - as evidenced by the death, decimation and chaos that followed and persists to this day.

    Nothing that Saddam Hussein, for all his brutality and sadism, ever did is remotely comparable to the devastation and misery caused in that region by the United States of America.

    So, Professor Humphreys, Sir, you should look in the mirror before throwing around labels like "narcissist", "psychopath", "self-gratification" and "delusion" - you might find examples closer to home than you expect.

  • Doctor Biobrain on August 22, 2011 2:45 PM:

    Shorter Goldilocks: Saddam Hussein wasn't a narcissistic psychopath because Bush was a bad guy.

    Huh? Look, I completely disagreed with the invasion of Iraq, yet see nothing wrong with what was said about Saddam in this article. Believe it or not, but it's possible for Saddam AND Bush to be bad guys. This article had nothing to do with the lawfulness of our aggression against these two countries and had everything to do with the personalities of the people involved. As such, I found it very interesting.

  • Goldilocks on August 22, 2011 5:11 PM:

    Doctor Biobrain's comment has induced me to read Professor Humphreys' article. It is interesting in a dismal, shocking way. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    I have encountered so many articles predicated on an assumption that "we" are axiomatically the good guys and hence "they" are unquestionably the bad guys, that the tone of Professor Humphreys' opening paragraph triggered my Pavlovian response. I now see that the substance of his analysis was more sophisticated than I had anticipated.

    The canvas on which Professor Humphreys sketches is so vast it is impossible in a comment to do much further justice to the subject, now that the premise on which I reacted has been removed. I will, nonetheless, jump in.

    For perspective, I had to think of leaders who were not of the psychopathology Humphreys describes. Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mahatma Gandhi and (with reservations) Winston Churchill come to mind. Each of these men also wielded immense power but, because of their manifest goodness, brought benefit to others without dependence on violence and repression. Tragically, such leaders are in the minority. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, Mao Zedongs and Pinochets to thank for unspeakable suffering and destruction.

    In this degenerating age every sort of disgusting psychopathology is popping up all over the place, in different guises and to differing depths of depravity. How do we understand this? Can we change it? Can we live with it?

    No doubt in certain rare cases change can be effected. My view, which keeps me sane, is that we are all buddha. That is, in essence, every sentient being - good, bad, ugly and not exclusively human - is buddha by nature. We each, from the very best to the very worst, have the same inherent potential: the potential of enlightenment. Mind is ultimately free but relatively trapped. The question is how much imprisonment are we prepared to tolerate, and hence how much effort are we prepared to devote to making the break. That goes equally for Mr Hussein, Professor Humphreys, Biobrain and me - in other words: for all sentient beings.


  • Anonymous on August 22, 2011 9:04 PM:

    Goldilocks wrote: Doctor Biobrain's comment has induced me to read Professor Humphreys' article.

    This has got to be the most-discrediting revelation in the history of blog comments. You wrote all that bile in your first comment *without even reading the article*.

  • Choops on August 23, 2011 1:59 AM:

    Dictators are people too. They know when they have fallen.

  • Goldilocks on August 23, 2011 5:53 AM:

    @Anonymous on August 22, 2011 9:04 PM:
    You wrote all that bile in your first comment *without even reading the article*.