What’s inside a tyrant’s mind?

The question of why dictators – even the most charming among them – oppress their own people.

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, file photo, 2008 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, file photo, 2008
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dictators and autocrats have been getting bad press of late, but few people stop and think about just how hard their daily lives really are.
Maintaining a wardrobe of fantastically flamboyant African robes, à la Muammar Gaddafi, isn’t an easy task, nor is getting your tailor to design camp military uniforms with epaulettes more outrageous than Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Think of the dangers, confronted by Kim Jong-Il, of confusing Monday’s drab, shapeless, colorless polyester suit with Tuesday’s drab, shapeless, colorless polyester suit. And no one appreciates the time-sapping demands Bashar Assad faces in getting his pencil mustache just so, nor the concentration skills and dexterity needed to effectively wield his facial grooming implements.
Although these kinds of dilemmas are not appreciated by most, there is something even harder to understand – something far less amusing.
That is the ability of present-day dictators to so readily give orders to kill as many people as it takes to maintain their grip on power.
For most people, the enormity of taking one life would be appalling enough; having the deaths of thousands on your conscience – not to mention the suffering caused by the medieval methods of torture employed today in places such as Syria and Libya – is simply unimaginable. Yet, as has been apparent in the past few months on our TV screens, in our newspapers and over the Internet, such crimes come more easily for some people and weigh less heavily on their souls.
Psychiatrists have explored this issue to try and understand what characteristics these dictators share and what allows them to commit the atrocities they do.
According to Prof. Fred Coolidge of Colorado University, there are a number of critical personality disorders that, when occurring together, cause a “perfect storm” for the development of a psychopathic personality.
First and foremost among these traits is an intense narcissism, an extreme form of egocentrism in which the approval and adulation of others is critical to one’s self-esteem.
This narcissism, Coolidge says, also creates a powerful drive to seek power, and the desire for power is a major motivator for a typical dictator.
Another characteristic common among autocratic leaders is a sense of huge selfimportance, a feeling that they are special, destined to have some great impact on their country and on history. A complete lack of interpersonal empathy, along with severe paranoia, completes the set, making for a particularly efficient and ruthless dictator.
But despite these antisocial pathologies, despots often have an ability to appear charming and smooth, and even seem empathetic, says Prof. James Fallon of the University of California – Irvine’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
This description of an autocrat’s ability to disarm matches the impression former UK ambassador to Syria Henry Hogger got of Syrian leader Assad: “He was easy to talk to. Tony Blair got on well with him, and he had a good sense of humor.”
It seems implausible that the man who so charmed Blair is now responsible for the deaths of approximately 1,400 people and the inhuman torture of young children.
And according to Sir Terence Clark, another former British diplomat who served as ambassador to Iraq between 1985 and 1990, these features were also noticeable in Saddam Hussein.
“Saddam came across as very well-practiced in the arts of diplomacy and statesmanship,” Clark says, adding that his narcissism was apparent, too. “He took on the [informal] title of ‘Leader of Necessity,’ and saw himself as a figure who was needed by Iraq at that moment in history.”
Saddam also had a vision – not an ideological one of, for example, social reform, but of making Iraq a major player in the Middle East and, most likely, the broader geopolitical arena.
Crucially, he saw himself as the pivotal character and was driven by a desire to acquire power, maintain power and create a dynasty by grooming his sons Uday and Qusai to inherit him. The cult of personality he cultivated is another symptom of his narcissistic egomania and need for adoration. Portraits and posters of the man were made all over the country, designed to portray him as a father figure of the nation.
But what is the pathology that allows for wholesale slaughter and violent repression? Lack of empathy, it appears, is one of the key elements in this regard.
Interfering with the plan of a dictator is a bad idea, explains Fallon. “Assad has a plan, and that plan, in his mind, is the greatest good that can be achieved for his country. To obtain his goals, he is willing to do things normal people would not, which is to kill people who are in the way.”
His vision of himself in relation to his country is almost parental, Fallon continues. “His attitude is, ‘If you threaten my children, i.e., my country or my ideas, I will kill you.’ He just has a lower threshold.”
It seems, therefore, that a dictator’s malignant narcissism helps convince himself that his plan is good; his megalomania is responsible for the development of some grand idea or vision; and his lack of empathy means he has fewer issues with committing what to other people would be unspeakable crimes.
FALLON’S DESCRIPTION of dictators having a grand sense of saving the world fits well with what Eli Shaked, a former Israeli consul-general to Turkey, has to say about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan is not a dictator; he is a legitimate politician and has been democratically elected on three separate occasions. Nevertheless, Shaked’s impression of the man closely mirrors the characteristics described by the psychiatrists.
Erdogan, says Shaked, wants to return the Middle East to the days before Ataturk, with Turkey playing a pivotal and influential role in the region. He wants to restore the country’s influence to what it was under the Ottoman caliphate, and this explains his desire to engage so actively with all the regional problems of its neighbors – with Syria, Greece, Armenia, the Kurds and Israel.
Unfortunately, says Shaked, he has failed to accomplish these dreams, and this is perhaps one of the causes of the retreat of democracy in Turkey over the past few years. Critical journalists have been imprisoned, and according to the former consul-general, opposition leaders have been set up in compromising positions, forcing them to resign.
Erdogan’s grand “neo-Ottoman” visions, combined with his hypersensitivity to criticism, fit well with the classic antisocial pathologies of true dictators, but these are not the only traits they share. Another notable pattern witnessed of late in the recent Middle East uprisings is of leaders such as Assad, Libya’s Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh claiming that the revolts are not, contrary to appearances, led by popular protest against brutal and interminable state repression, but by Islamist cells, Western provocateurs or Zionist agents seeking to undermine the nation.
“They absolutely believe their own rhetoric,” Coolidge says; they are not in any way pretending.
Witness Gaddafi’s ramblings shortly after the rebellion against his rule began in earnest back in February. This “mad dog of the Middle East,” as former US president Ronald Reagan affectionately labeled him, claimed that those protesting against him were, in actuality, protesting for him. In a brief, bizarre TV interview, Gaddafi claimed, “I was talking with the young people in Green Square and wanted to spend the night with them, but it started to rain.”
Later, in a 70-minute televised address Gaddafi said there was, however, a small group of youths who had been given hallucinatory drugs and had attacked a couple of police stations.
This refusal to acknowledge reality comes from autocratic rulers’ deep-seated belief that they are heroic, munificent leaders, working toward the betterment of their country. But it is also nurtured by the corrupting nature of their position. Because they possess an acute sensitivity to criticism, they will remove by any means necessary those who disagree with them, and appoint fawning cronies and relatives, who are themselves attracted to power and financial benefits, as advisers and state officials.
“The proclivity of autocrats to literally shoot the messenger means that these people are never given a true picture of the country’s state of affairs, and they slowly become divorced from reality,” says Fallon. This situation leads the regime to grow ever more distant from its people by completely insulating itself from their grievances, and this in turn, compounded by the ruler’s lack of empathy, leads inexorably to vicious repression against anyone opposing the ruling elite.
Ultimately the despots who have made daily headlines in recent months for their unmitigated cruelty are completely addicted to power.
“All addictions are the same – drugs, nicotine, love, shopping, power, all feed into the hedonic hot spot and support pleasure,” says Fallon. But whereas a normal person can manage without constant stimulation of this pleasure center, someone with an addictive personality is left devastated when he fails to get his fix; it’s real pain, like losing a loved one, and he will do anything to ward off the symptoms of withdrawal.
“Addicts continue with whatever behavior they’re addicted to, just to avoid that pain. It’s not pleasurable, it’s managing the pain of withdrawal,” explains Fallon.
“What makes dictators different is that they’re addicted to power, and no amount of power will satisfy them. It keeps getting worse and worse. This is the idea of malignant addiction to power, and this is what dictators have and what drives their will to cling to power and their totalitarian inclinations.”
This stark diagnosis of what motivates the likes of Assad, Gaddafi and others is frightening, because it means there are few limits to what they are prepared to do to avoid the awful pain that results if they lose power.
“We will enter a bloody war, and thousands and thousands of Libyans will die if the United States or NATO enters,” warned Gaddafi back in February. He was deadly serious. Such threats are not to be taken lightly, and should serve as a clarion signal to the world that tyrants everywhere will stop at nothing to maintain their grasp on the reins of power.