Are dictators mad geniuses?

Two new books suggest that demented world leaders like Saddam, Idi Amin and Baby Doc Duvalier might be more like that cranky guy in the next cubicle than Hannibal Lecter.

Published April 24, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

When it comes to villains, who doesn't prefer a shameless fiend to a whining shirker? Milton's Satan, proclaiming that it is "better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n," or Iago, crowing over an opportunity for "double knavery," may be damnable, but their nihilistic bravado thrills us in a way that the plodding of an Adolf Eichmann cannot. Conscious, gleeful, unrepentant wickedness seems to crop up more often in fiction than in reality, though. When Hannah Arendt wrote of the "banality of evil" in "Eichmann in Jerusalem," she meant that it was precisely Eichmann's lack of imagination that made him capable of engineering the Holocaust, not the presence of some extraordinary malevolence.

But Eichmann was a middleman; what of the guys at the top, the strongmen or fanatics -- such as, for example, the Iraqi president recently deposed by the United States -- who give the horrific orders their underlings dutifully obey? Surely the buck stops somewhere, and when that buck is covered with blood, you find a towering monster standing there, dripping in gore to the elbows and cackling like Lex Luthor over the sheer, unadulterated badness of his own bad self, right?

Curiosity about just this question inspired Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio to pursue the seven deposed dictators he interviews in "Talk of the Devil." They include Idi Amin, Jan-Bedel Bokassa, Wojciech Jaruzelski, Nexhmije Hoxha, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Mira Markovic (wife of Slobodan Milosevic), who once ruled, respectively, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Poland, Albania, Haiti, Ethiopia and Yugoslavia. The roots of this slender volume lie in two newspaper clippings that Orizio carried around in his wallet for years, both referring to "personalities accused of cannibalism" (Amin and Bokassa). Eventually he made a project of tracking down "fallen tyrants," asking, "How does a one-time dictator, whom the history books describe as ruthless, immoral and power-crazed, grow old? What does he tell his children and grandchildren about himself? What does he tell himself?"

Along the same lines, Jerrold Post and fellow contributors to the new volume he has edited, "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders," try to psych out heads of state, categorizing them according to various personality types and dissecting their actions. As a journalist, Orizio has no greater obligation than to amuse and inform, but Post and company are scientists specializing in political psychology. Orizio is just curious; Post et al. advise leaders on how their allies and adversaries might behave in negotiations or under duress. They work at institutions like the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, which Post founded.

And yet the authors of both of these books investigate more or less the same mystery: Why do powerful people do the things they do? Orizio mostly wants to know the motives and rationales for monstrous behavior, while Post and his fellow scientists don't really concern themselves with the greater moral perspective. Still, even the leaders of democracies can resort to terrible deeds (hence, Henry Kissinger avoids certain nations where the prosecution of human rights violations is taken seriously), and sometimes the devil is the prince of more than just darkness. One of the two lengthy sample profiles offered in "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders" is of Saddam Hussein. The other is of Bill Clinton.

Now officially a deposed despot, Saddam has made headlines with his past crimes of late, but he still has some stiff competition on the atrocity front. Take, to pick the most convenient example, those cannibalism accusations against Amin and Bokassa. Both men now deny the charges, and given the phantasmagorical element in African political culture, we may never know if they are true, but when Amin fled Uganda in 1979, "the decapitated heads of some of his adversaries were discovered in the fridges of the presidential residence," writes Orizio. (Amin broadcast decapitations on television, ordering that the victims be dressed in white to make the blood more visible.) He imprisoned, tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of his citizens, bankrupted the nation and earned himself a reputation as the "African Caligula."

Amin, as Orizio discovered after a labyrinthine quest for an interview, now lives quietly in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, where he is esteemed for his Muslim piety and claims, "I don't want to be mixed up in the affairs of the superpowers ... I've got five satellite dishes." One of his sons plays basketball at a Boston college. But another has formed "an unholy alliance with Sudanese tribal militiamen and former Hutu soldiers responsible for the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda" to fight the Ugandan army from the Congo. And one of Orizio's sources, an Italian businessman, recalls being asked by the "jovial, self-confident" Amin to ship some large containers to northern Uganda, near Sudan: "Sensitive material, you understand. Important cargo."

Clearly, it's hard to stay out of the game, and unless he's caught, Saddam (who Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress insists is still in Iraq), could well resurface in a friendly state and get up to some of his old tricks. As Peter Suedfeld observes in "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders," for an autocrat Saddam is remarkably resilient and resourceful, able to alter his tactics drastically to secure his own survival, even though he has in the past shown "rigid defiance in the face of his obvious misjudgments," according to another scholar, David G. Winter. Saddam has always had an eye for how his actions have gone over in the Arab world, and Post himself points out that what looks to Westerners like preposterous boasting has a different effect in the Middle East. "In the Arab world," he writes, "having the courage to fight a superior foe can bring political victory, even through a military defeat."

Former dictators, it seems, tend to be either ridiculous or sneakily impressive. Bokassa, who was also discovered upon his ouster to have stashed cadavers of opposition leaders in a gigantic freezer -- right by the kitchen -- moulders away Miss Havisham-style in a crumbling villa, attended by his former Cabinet secretary who now acts as a butler. He reminisces mournfully about the grotesquely lavish coronation ceremony where he had himself named emperor and tells Orizio that Pope Paul VI "secretly nominated me 13th apostle of Holy Mother Church." As with quite a few of the toppled tyrants profiled in "Talk of the Devil," his tale involves several scheming concubines, women who always seem to emerge from the ruins of dictatorships better off than the former dictators themselves.

A couple of these men are ruled by Lady Macbeth types, particularly Jean-Claude Duvalier, who lost one extravagant, fiscally ingenious and Machiavellian wife only to gain an enterprising "companion," Véronique Roi, who has dedicated herself to resurrecting his reputation and perhaps his reign. Milosevic's political career appears to have been masterminded by his wife, the fearsome Mira Markovic of the Marlo Thomas bangs and uncanny ability, during her husband's rule, of predicting just which inconvenient political figure would next be killed in a mysterious bombing. Orizio overhears her speaking baby talk with Milosevic, who calls from the prison in The Hague where he is being tried for war crimes. Nexhmije Hoxha, the imprisoned surviving member of the couple who ran perhaps the world's creepiest totalitarian regime, in Albania, still has her former subjects so spooked that they avoid using her name, referring to her only as "the Widow."

But as lurid as the biographies of all these despots may be, to a man (and woman) they are now primarily wallowers in aggrieved resentment. They sulk. Not one of them expresses any regret for the hordes of people they slaughtered, robbed and oppressed. Quite a few of them are clearly crashing bores, ranting on in endless refutations of their critics and referring Orizio to books they have written that supposedly contain definitive proof they've gotten a bad rap. Like Hoxha, Mengistu -- whose "Red Terror" campaign of repression killed a half million Ethiopians in a single year and charged the families of executed "enemies of the people" for the bullets used to slay their relatives -- complains of having been "betrayed" by the Soviets, by the African National Congress, by Ethiopia itself. "I did what I did only because my country had to be saved from tribalism and feudalism. If I failed, it was only because I was betrayed. The so-called genocide was nothing more than a just war in defense of the revolution."

The eerie thing about all these former dictators is that, in carping about their falls from power, they might as well be describing an ugly divorce or the job they lost because of that person in the office who was out to get them -- rather than some of the marquee horrors of the 20th century. There are harmless psychotics who have grander and deeper conceptions of their own moral character than this lot. In "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders," Post cautions against characterizing a tyrant like Saddam as a "madman," a "pejorative diagnosis" he dismisses as "not only inaccurate but also dangerous" because it suggests that the former Iraqi leader is "unpredictable."

Of course, Post's entire profession (and the continued funding of it) is based on the premise that the actions of men like Saddam Hussein can be predicted and that political psychologists are the ones to do it, but it's still remarkable how much Saddam's own statements echo those of Orizio's dictators. The cruel measures of his regime are "justified by the 'exceptionalism of revolutionary needs,'" which are all in fact "Saddam Hussein's needs and messianic ambitions." As grandiloquent as Saddam's rhetoric may be, though, Post stresses that "there is no evidence that he is suffering from a psychotic disorder. He is not impulsive, he acts only after judicious consideration, and he can be extremely patient; indeed, he uses time as a weapon." (Not that time proved much use against a U.S. administration determined to get rid of him whether or not it could establish that he possessed the weapons of mass destruction it used to justify the invasion of Iraq.)

Some of the contributors to "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders" specialize in a peculiar form of statistical verbal analysis in which certain words or expressions are sorted into such categories as "qualifiers," "retractors," "explainers" and "adverbial intensifiers," each indicating a particular trait or disposition. The most spontaneous samples available of a leader's speech are then fed into this system, the incidence of words in each category counted up and thus the various aspects of the speaker's personality can purportedly be quantified.

It's a Poindexterish sort of theory, and it leads to nearly unreadable chapters with titles like "Assessing Integrative Complexity at a Distance: Archival Analyses of Thinking and Decision Making." Mostly this method grinds its way through impenetrable charts and citations to fairly obvious conclusions -- for example that Saddam has "a proclivity to master situations rather than react passively to events." (Well, he was a totalitarian dictator, after all.) But some of the tidbits are intriguing. Richard Nixon's White House tapes provided a wealth of data for these researchers, who compared the speech of the principals to that "of a normal control group and of populations of delusional, impulsive, depressive and compulsive psychiatric patients." They found that John Dean and John Ehrlichman showed fairly normal verbal behavior, while Nixon talked like the depressed and impulsive patients and "[H.R.] Haldeman's style appeared to be abnormal but unlike any of the patient groups previously studied."

If you work hard enough at reading "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders," you might glean that Gerald Ford used more qualifiers than any other chief executive studied, "giving his style of speaking a halting, indecisive flavor"; that Bill Clinton said "me" when attacked, a word used most often by children, women and elderly people that tends to paint the speaker as a victim; and that Hillary Clinton's frequent use of "explainers" makes her come across as didactic. Also, that Saddam Hussein's verbal manner, with its "few expressions of feeling" and "frequent use of adverbial intensifiers and direct references" probably strikes his listeners as "cold, aggressive intrusiveness ... the speech pattern of a menacing speaker, a bully."

The American political figure whose speech most resembles Saddam's, interestingly enough, is Pat Buchanan. The chief difference between the two is that Buchanan makes jokes, and as glad as I am that Buchanan hasn't got any real power in the U.S., I suspect the difference is crucial. With the possible exception of Idi Amin -- there's always a wild card -- none of the dictators Orizio interviews shows any sign of a sense of humor. That would require some capacity for perspective, which is also the faculty that enables someone to realize that what they're doing is wrong -- or, for that matter, absurd or boring. All of Orizio's tyrants are not just oblivious to their monstrosity, they're also blind to their own silliness, from the deluded "13th apostle" on his ludicrous gilded throne to the hen-pecked Baby Doc Duvalier. They are, in essence, cranks.

They are also a whole lot less interesting than seemingly more ordinary leaders -- like Clinton or Woodrow Wilson (a favorite subject of the political psychology crowd). We call the bloody deeds of tyrants "enormities," and it's true that the suffering they inflict is immeasurable. But the men and women who perpetrate those crimes aren't complex and fascinating in their wickedness, like Professor Moriarty or Dr. Hannibal Lecter. They're actually little people with little minds, however big their ambitions. And wherever they are, Saddam included, you can be sure they're not laughing.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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