With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Was a Tyrant Prefigured by Baby Saddam?

Elisabeth Bumiller, in the NYT (May 15, 2004):

It is no surprise to Jerrold M. Post, the founder of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the C.I.A., that Saddam Hussein grew up to be one of the world's most dangerous dictators and a member of President Bush's axis of evil.

"Of all of the leaders I've profiled, his background is assuredly the most traumatic," Dr. Post said in an interview this week in his wood-paneled, African-artifact-filled office in Bethesda, Md., where he is a psychiatrist for patients whose personal struggles have typically not led to two American wars in the Middle East."His troubles can really be traced back to the womb."

As Dr. Post recounts in his new book,"Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World" (Cornell University Press, $29.95), Mr. Hussein's father died, probably of cancer, in the fourth month of his mother's pregnancy with Saddam. Mr. Hussein's 12-year-old brother died, also of cancer, a few months later. The trauma left Saddam's mother, Sabha, so desperately depressed that she tried and failed to abort Saddam and kill herself. When Saddam was born, she would have nothing to do with him and sent him away to an uncle.

At 3 Mr. Hussein was reunited with his mother after she had married a distant relative, but he was then physically and psychologically abused by his new stepfather. Mr. Hussein left home and returned to live with the uncle when he was 8 or 9.

"So that would produce in psychoanalytic terms what we call `the wounded self,'" Dr. Post said."Most people with that kind of background would be highly ineffective as adults and be faltering, insecure human beings." But there is, Dr. Post said, an alternative path that a minority of wounded selves take:"malignant narcissism," the personality disorder that Dr. Post believes fueled Mr. Hussein's rise in Iraq. Perhaps most important, Dr. Post says, is that Mr. Hussein is a"judicious political calculator," not a madman.

Not everyone, of course, subscribes to the view that psychiatric profiles of dictators are predictive, useful or even accurate."The study of human behavior is a very complex thing," said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of"Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk.""Sometimes I get up in the morning and I don't know why I do what I do." Studies like Dr. Post's can help, Mr. Mead said,"but you really do have to use this kind of information cautiously."

Although Dr. Post has spent 30 years creating hundreds of political profiles of American foes (among them, Fidel Castro), he also developed the profiles of Anwar el-Sadat and Menachem Begin for Jimmy Carter's use at the Camp David talks that led to peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Since 9/11 his work has taken on new urgency. Understanding the minds of rogue leaders, he says, is essential to developing policies that can counteract them....