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Saddam Hussein Psychological Analysis Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 31st, 2020

For assessing Saddam Hussein, there is very little verbal material available. What is available has probably been selected, edited, and otherwise controlled to an unknown but considerable extent. The researcher’s problem is thus to find any usable material at all.” (Winter in Post 2005 383 pdf)

Political, psychological profiling offers the opportunity for understanding more about leaders and their decisions. The last two and half decades have produced new theories of leader decision-making by examining and comparing cognition and affect. (McDermott 2004, 183) Testing the various ways in which emotions impact cognitive processing and vice versa, researchers have found, particularly Sasley, (2010), that heuristic effects, or the amount of emotional attachment a leader has towards a foreign policy object, strongly impacts that leader’s decisions regarding that foreign policy object whether it be an issue, a physical person, a geographic marker such as a country, or an ideology. The case of Saddam Hussein, the late and former dictator/president of Iraq, had his emotional triggers.

Following the work of Post, Winter, and Hermann, the profile of Hussein as a malignant narcissist assumed that his primary emotional trigger or attachment were those foreign policy objects that required his messianic role as the savior of Iraq to act. Interviews conducted after his capture by FBI Special Agent G. Piro in 2004 provide examples of several of the problems with methodologies attempting to assess from a distance, the emotional triggers, and reactions of leaders. The following paper provides a summary of some of the relevant points in Post’s political profile of the leader during three periods of crisis in Hussein’s life and in the history of Iraq.

Following the findings of Davies (qtd. in McDermott 185) that biological reactions to stress and the need for survival create the most intense intersection between emotions, cognitions as reflected in biological markers of tension etc. are difficult to assess at a distance. However, using the interviews conducted by Piro in 2004 (Saddam Hussein Talks to the FBI), the conclusion of Post and others that Hussein’s emotional trigger was his identification of himself as a needed messianic figure for his country may be challenged.

The paper argues that it is likely that it was not his role as a messiah to his country nor to his Ba’athist ideological beliefs but rather was triggered by a schema based on his hatred and fear of Iran. In addition, the paper will argue that the interviews highlight two of the problems with at-a-distance profiling of leaders and identifying heuristic affects, that of profiler/interviewer/analyst bias and ‘performance.’ The interviews were conducted by one of the ‘rare’ agents able to accurately and reliably translate Arabic.

Working for the George W. Bush administration, which was committed to its portrayal of Hussein as a madman with an arsenal of WMDs that justified the US invasion in 2003, Piro emphasized in his summaries, specific phrases and reactions that supported the Bush administration’s claims. However, the interviews also reveal that although Hussein was aware of the psychological profiles that had been carried out, presumably those done and published by Jerrold Post.

Furthermore, he seemed to go out of his way to present himself to Piro as a rational leader instead of a religiously-motivated or ideologically motivated fanatic. In doing so, he seems to simultaneously put on a performance for Piro while at the same time revealing his deep hatred of Iran. Any action or potential action, as in the case of the Marsh village events that Iran might take were seen as the greatest threat to Iraq. Hussein’s statement, “Saddam is Iraq, Iraq is Saddam” (Post 356) may not reflect his messianic identification but rather his commitment as a leader to combatting his arch-enemy, Iran.

This conclusion does not alter the profiling of Hussein as a ‘malignant narcissist.’ However, it does highlight some of the issues confronting profilers of leaders, particularly regarding their heuristic affects. If Iran is more of a trigger than Ba’athist ideology or a need for attention and grandiosity, than understanding that might have better helped analysts understand Hussein’s motives and predictable actions. The character of the ‘madman’ may have served a purpose of distraction, as Hussein commented several times in the interviews, ‘I am not going to let my enemy know what I am going to do’. (2004)

A Brief Psychobiography of Saddam Hussein

Jerrold Post argues in his defining political profile of malignant narcissists that the cognitive beliefs of a leader are closely associated with “affective needs and emotional drives” (95). Sasley (2010) and others have also argued that emotional commitments to specific policy objects also has a significant affective impact on decision-makers. One of the early and most significant political psychological profiles constructed by US analysts for the CIA, analyzed the Iraqi leader of the late 20th century, Saddam Hussein (b.1937-d.2006).

Through application of a model examining the crisis behavior of Hussein, Post effectively demonstrates that in fact, the stronger the affective need and emotional drives, the more they “constrain particular cognitive belief systems” (95), which in turn reveals “systematic distortions that affect information processing associated with particular leader personality types” (95) specifically the narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive and paranoid leader types.

Within that framework, the following essay argues it is possible to not only identify systematic distortions in the decision-making processes of Saddam Hussein that reveal traits identifiable with not only narcissistic and paranoid leader types, but are so entrenched within the rigidity of his affective models or heuristics that they result in emotionally motivated behavior associated with malignant narcissism based on three specific crises: 1979 Iran-Iraq War, the August 2 1990 decision to invade Kuwait, known as the ‘Gulf War’, and the 2003 response to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The argument will first outline the arguments for analyzing emotional drives ‘at a distance’ and those against as background for the thesis that Saddam Hussein’s behavior during the three specific foreign policy crises resulted from his early attachment to Baathist ideologies combined with perhaps an ‘innate’ component wiring Hussein for violence. Secondly, the discussion will provide a biographical sketch of Hussein’s early life up to his ascension to the leadership of Iraq July 16 1979 to establish the presence of an affective heuristic seeded and nurtured in childhood by his Uncle Kairallah towards Baathist ideologies in the context of his village life in rural Iraq.

It will argue that Hussein demonstrated an early propensity for violence, (he killed his cousin at the age of 17), and his apparent detachment from and lack of empathy for others. Thirdly, the paper will argue that this tendency shaped the form his emotional drives took creating reactions and negotiating style framed in an automatic resolution to crisis through violence which can be traced through a series of systematic responses evident in three crucial foreign policy crises. Finally, it will conclude that Hussein fulfills the definition of not only a paranoid narcissistic leader, but one driven by the specific type of narcissism, malignant narcissism.

Analyzing Political Leaders Emotions ‘At a Distance’: The Debate

In the Article “Malignant Narcissism”, Alexandar Burgemeester explains Malignant Narcissism as “an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder that is manifested in a person who is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation, and with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism” (…)

A German social psychologist Erich Fromm first used the notion of “malignant narcissism” (MN) in 1964 to describe it as a serious mental disorder (qtd. in Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393). Besides, he considered MN “the quintessence of evil” (qtd. in Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393).

Twenty years later Kernberg (qtd. in Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393) introduced the concept of MN to psychoanalytic literature. The concept of MN is among the least investigated in in psychoanalysis. According to Kernberg (qtd. in Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393), there are four major characteristics of this disorder. Firstly, it is a typical core narcissistic personality disorder. Secondly, it is characterized with antisocial behavior. Thirdly, personalities with MN usually demonstrate ego-syntonic sadism. Finally, the people observing this disorder have a deeply paranoid orientation toward life.

According to American Psychological Association, MN has some features of narcissistic personality disorder which are revealed in “grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance, a belief in being special or unique, a strong need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitativeness, a lack of empathy and prominent envy (qtd. in Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393).

Aggression and destructive features are idealized in MN. The individuals with MN look successful and self-sufficient. Nevertheless, in practice they prove to be vulnerable to shame, fragile, and easily hurt by criticism. Irritation and rage are typical of them in case of failure. The need for recognition drives their life. Consequently, they envy the people who are more successful. However, they can work hard for long periods of time to achieve the desirable recognition and can adapt to the changing situation.

On the whole, people with MN disorder follow their aim despite the obstacles. They can change their values if it promises any profit. Although promiscuous and charming, they are unable to have deep relationships (Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393). MN has also features similar to Antisocial personality disorder. Still, the difference is that individuals with MN can choose loyalties.

Kernbers states (qtd. in Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393) that “the ego-syntonic sadism of MN is displayed by a characterologically-anchored aggression.” It is usually revealed through aggressive self-affirmation. People with MN often tend to dehumanize the others and destroy something they see as a threat to the success. The feeling of revenge is very strong among them. The paranoid behavior of individuals with MN causes the fact that they do not believe anyone. Besides, it results in the conspiracy theories that trouble them.

The possible factors that stimulate the development of MN can be found among biological, environmental, psychological and sociocultural determinants (Goldner-Vukov and Moore 393). It should also be mentioned that MN is more frequently developed among men than women. more common among men than women. Biological determinants of MN include genetic influences, temperament, and the possible influence of early relational trauma on nervous system. The environmental and psychological factors comprise late relational trauma which may be caused by the inability of parent to demonstrate empathy and meet the emotional needs of children.

Malignant narcissism may have social consequences for the society. Due to the peculiarities of this disorder, it is characteristic of political dictators. The personalities of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are remembered due to their cruelty and crimes against humanity (Goldner-Vukov and Moore 397). The row of dictators of the twentieth century who obviously had malignant narcissism can be continued by the figure of Saddam Hussein.

President George W. Bush called him “axis of devil” and considered him a threat to the western world (Post 335). Hussein was a person that supported the development of weapons of mass destruction although it caused UN sanctions which resulted in the Gulf countries crisis. The psychological context of his actions cannot be traced without considering the motives and perceptions that had the influence on the decision making. Many political and historical observers called him “the madman of the Middle East” (Post 335). However, this characteristic may be misleading in the evaluation of his activity.

Some researchers consider that the roots of his behavior may go back to the childhood years. The preconditions for personality development are formed in the early years. The prerequisites for becoming a tyrant, dictator or a prominent leader together with other abnormal aberrations are conditioned by the childhood events (Post 337). Saddam was born in 1937 in a poor village of Tikrit region, near Baghdad. He did not know his father who died probably of cancer during his wife’s pregnancy. His younger brother died later. The mother was so stressed that she attempted suicide. Saddam was an unwanted child and the mother had some attempts to kill an unborn son. The unhappy childhood of Saddam followed the failed suicidal attempts of his mother who did not want to live after the deaths of her husband and the elder son.

The woman in despair was saved by her Jewish neighbors who took care of her and thus save the life to a future dictator. After Saddam was born, he was sent to his uncle because his mother did not want to bother. Some years later when his mother married again, Saddam came to live with her. However, his life was not happy here since he was abused by the stepfather both physically and morally. He was not let to go to school bat had many duties at home such as take care of the herd of sheep. At the age of ten he left home again to live with his uncle who remained the main person in his life. his wandering in childhood could condition the fact that Saddam Hussein did not trust people around him.

It is a characteristic feature of the abused children, and Saddam took his offence into the adulthood. Post describes the situation in psychoanalytic terms as “the wounded self” (335). Besides, he states that “Most people with that kind of background would be highly ineffective as adults and be faltering, insecure human beings” (Post 335). Moreover, the researcher says that Hussein is a “judicious political calculator,” not a madman (Post 335).

The psychological consequences of such childhood proved to be decisive in the formation of Hussein’s personality as an adult. As it was already mentioned, Saddam Hussein’s psychology can be treated as the syndrome of malignant narcissism. He possesses all the characteristics of the disorder such as pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and unconstrained aggression. As for pathological narcissism, Hussein demonstrates absolute grandiosity, extreme self-absorption and overconfidence. These features made him not sensible to the possible sufferings of the other people.

Emotions such as empathy or grieve are not characteristic of this personality type. As a result, this feeling of superiority influenced his attitude to the other people. The antisocial features which are the components of malignant narcissism were revealed in the fact that such people are only governed by their own interests. Besides, they are not likely to see any obstacles on their way to the purpose. Narcissistic leaders such as Saddam Hussein usually demonstrate amorality and can use the beliefs of other people to their own profit.

In such a way the leaders may consolidate their power. They appear to be not afraid of punishment such as international sanctions, economic influences or other indications of power of the other countries that may want to stop them. Nevertheless, the general appearance of a strong and mighty leader usually hides the unsure character. They tend to see enemies in everyone and the conspiracy theory is the characteristic of them.

They do not understand that they make more new enemies by their behavior. Another feature of malignant narcissism is the unconstrained aggression. The representatives of this personality type are preserved in public. They often reveal sadistic traits and can cynically calculate the outcome of the situation to benefit from it. Hussein was a worthy representative of this type of individuals, having hidden interests and able to conceal the real hostile intentions.

The political implications of malignant narcissism are evident in Hussein’s life and career. With self-aggrandizement as his major driving force, there was no other possibility to –make him give up his political power other than convince him the return to power and promising another chance. During his stay at power, he demonstrated multiple attempts to preserve the authority.

The Political Decision-Making

It might be due to his narcissi character that Hussein never normalized for the loss to Iran. However, he did normalize the loss to the US.

“The need for simplicity and consistency, the impediments to probabilistic thinking, and the predisposition to loss aversion are often treated….as deviations from rational models of information processing, estimation and choice. [However], these ‘deviations’ are so pervasive and so systematic that it is a mistake to consider rational models of choice as empirically valid in foreign policy analysis” (Gross Stein 139).

Camerer et al. mention that “There is a growing consensus [among scientists today] that emotion is ‘first’ because it is automatic and fast and plays a dominant role in shaping behavior.” Furthermore, we act before we think. “…the conscious brain then interprets behavior that emerges from automatic, affective processes as the outcome of cognitive deliberations (qtd. in Gross Stein 140-141).

“Research demonstrates that fear prompts uncertainty and risk-adverse action, while anger prompts certainty and risk acceptance. Threats that evoke fear are likely to prompt hesitancy and a risk-averse response; indeed that is the purpose of most deterrent threats. However, frightening threats are less likely to be successful when they are designed to compel adversarial leaders to act.” (Gross Stein 143)

Rehshon (qtd. in Hafner-Burton 9) suggests the idea that “rationalist models allow for a diversity of preferences”. Nevertheless, the behavioral revolution disclosed three possible deviations from rationalist assumptions that can be applied to treat international relations. It touches the way the actors at the political arena actually assess risk; how they treat the future as something insignificant; and how they consider the possibility of social preferences. Despite the fact that rationalist models give the opportunity of heterogeneous risk preferences, the future theory implies that those preferences might be structured in predictable ways (Hafner-Burton 9).

The impetus for this discussion derives from poliheuristic decision-making theory, which suggests that “decision makers often attempt to cut through the plethora of complex information available during a decision task by employing cognitive short cuts, or heuristics” (Kinne; Mintz and Geva; Mintz, Geva, Redd, and Carnes; Mintz, qtd. in Gerschwer 3). One of these heuristics is the elimination of any choice that might lead to political fallout. The “noncompensatory” provision in poliheuristic theory states that in any given situation that requires a decision, if a certain alternative is unacceptable on the political dimension, “then a high score on another dimension (e.g., the military) cannot compensate/counteract for it, and hence the alternative is eliminated” (Mintz, qtd. in Gerschwer 3).

According to poliheuristic theory, the political dimension is always noncompensatory in foreign policy decision making (Mintz and Geva; Mintz, qtd. in Gerschwer 3). Political leaders measure their success in political units, such as public approval ratings, and they are only able to turn their attention to other dimensions (e.g., economic or diplomatic concerns) after their political concerns have been satisfied (Mintz and Geva, qtd. in Gerschwer 3).

The influence of emotions on coercive diplomacy is studied by Markwica (12). It is stated that in coercive diplomacy, actors use the threat of power to reach targets to change their behavior. The major aim is to achieve the opponent’s agreement in the necessary questions without starting a war. Nevertheless, in practice similar strategies may not prove to be efficient even despite the substantial military superiority of the oppressor. This conclusion prompts another question discussed in the thesis by Markwica: “What prompts leaders to reject coercive threats from stronger adversaries, and under what conditions do they yield?” (14).

The author argues that the concentration on the leaders’ affective reactions can be the key to explanation of the success of coercive diplomacy in some certain situations and its failure in the others. The work by Markwica unites the insights from both psychology and social constructivism. It also represents “a theory of emotional choice to analyze how affect enters into target leaders’ decision-making ‘ (Markwica 14). In fact, it mentions that the decisions made have not only social but also emotional background.

The major emotions that influence the decisions are fear, anger, hope, pride, and humiliation. Their combination constitutes the major leaders’ preferences. It is the first effort to explain what kind of emotions has the impact on the decision making of the leader’s in the field of foreign policy. One of the subject to this investigation are ten major decisions by Saddam Hussein taken during the Gulf conflict in 1990-91. The results of the mentioned analysis are diverse.

On the one hand, one third of all decisions appear to be not influenced at all or to be slightly influenced. The second third of decisions underwent the influence of one of the emotions, but it was not stringer than the impact of other determinants. Finally, the third part of the decisions were taken under the strong influence of one of the emotions. On the whole, it can be stated that emotions have certain influence of the leaders’ decision-making. This conclusion is applicable to explain the roots of the leaders’ decision-making in the Gulf conflict and the missile crisis. It also suggests the reasons of failure and success of coercive diplomacy in those cases (Markwica 16). Davis suggests an approach to building simple adversary models (9). Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein was considered an adversary for the US.

Works Cited

Davis, Paul K. Simple Culture-Informed Models of the Adversary. RAND Corporation, 2016.

Gerschwer, Scott. “Bracketing” Foreign Policy from Domestic Affairs: A New Paradigm for International Negotiation and Decision-Making.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Conflict Science, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016.

Goldner-Vukov, Mila, and Laurie Jo Moore. “Malignant Narcissism: From Fairy Tales to Harsh Reality.” Psychiatria Danubina, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010, pp 392–405.

Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., et al. The Behavioral Revolution and the Study of International Relations.” International Organization, vol. 71, no. S1, pp. S1-S31.

Markwica, Robin. The Passions of Power Politics: How Emotions Influence Coercive Diplomacy. Dissertation, University of Oxford, 2014.

McDermott, Rose. Political Psychology in International Relations. The University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Post, Jerrold, editor. The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders. The University of Michigan Press, 2010.

” in 2004.” The National Security Archive. Web.

Stein, Janice G. “Foreign Policy Decision-making.” Foreign Policy: Theories, Actors, Cases, 2016, 130.

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