Understanding Dictators like Gadhafi · 4 March 2011

Commenting on events in Libya, Jason Pack (St.Antony’s College, Oxford), who has had significant experience in Libya, recently wrote :

As policy makers the world over speculate about what Gadhafi will do next, they should look to the leader’s upbringing, psychology and ideology for clues. To get the true measure of the man and his motivations, one must see past the rambling demagoguery and YouTube parodies.

Pack wrote that after his bloodless coup d’etate in 1969, Gadhafi struck Westerners who met him as charismatic, confident and idealistic. Despite his brutality, Gadhafi, sees himself as a philosopher-king and is angry and bitter that his utopian vision has not been realized. He is prone to paranoid conspiracy theories about how outside actors have ruined his precious vision because they cannot afford to see his utopia succeed.

And, in conclusion, Pack wrote: Assured of his own righteousness, Gadhafi will fight to the bitter end with whatever trusted advisers and praetorian guards will stick by his side.

I do not know whether or not Pack’s assessments are correct, but I like his approach to the issue. Rather than simply saying that Gadhafi is a bad mad man, he has recognized that Gadhafi like all self-made dictators who have survived in power for a long time (in this case 40 years) has an idealistic side which attracts supporters.

When the writer Emil Ludwig asked Stalin why everybody in his country feared him, Stalin rejoined: Do you really believe a man could maintain his position of power for fourteen years merely by intimidation? Only by making people afraid?

Of course not!

Stalin like Hitler and Mao had ideals. The Yugoslavian politician, Milovan Djilas, who had close dealings with Stalin and his lieutenants from 1944, noted that in Stalin, certain great and final ideals lay hidden his ideals, which he could approach by moulding and twisting the reality and the living men who comprised it.

So, in my view Pack is being realistic. Such realism could also be applied to such people as Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro.

But, there is another side to this. Just as many in the West fall into the trap seeing only bad in such dictators, they also fail to see that these idealistic traits can drive leaders of their own countries to cruelty and such leaders can attract many supporters.

Psychologically, I think that Tony Blair is the sort of personality who if had been born in Libya about the same time as Gadhafi could easily have become a Gadhafi.

And, many who have supported Blair over the years would even have been Gadhafi-type supporters.

Their sense of idealism and their own righteousness blinds them to their own cruelty in supporting suppressive regimes and countries.

Gustave M Gilbert, in his The Psychology of Dictatorship: based on an examination of the leaders of Nazi Germany, wrote about the ability of decent people to compartmentalize their thinking so that they can combine idealism with cruelty.

As a general principle . the normal social process of group identification and hostility-reaction brings about a selective constriction of empathy, which, in addition to the semi-conscious suppression of insight, enables normal people to condone or participate in the most sadistic social aggression without feeling it or realising it.

Many Germans and many Americans (in the case of their treatment of blacks) when confronted with these inconsistencies in their professed behavior as decent citizens, recognise the inconsistency intellectually, but still find it difficult to modify their behavior. Insight is not sufficient to overcome the deeply rooted social conditioning of feelings.

Gustave was writing about the internal workings of societies, and specifically countries. But, in the sense that the people of the world are also a society, the same psychological processes apply.

In my view, Blair and many others—despite all their idealism—have seen Arabs in the way described by Gilbert. So, what was Iraq all about? Blair simply wanted to be a hero of the sort his idealism imagined!