Is Qadhafi Self-Delusional?

mental disorders show up in the brain.
Qadafi has shown several signs that he has lost his grip on reality, a psychologist says. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Six months after a civil uprising began in Libya, Col. Muammar Qadhafi, the nation's longtime leader, finally seems to have lost his grip on the country he ruled for more than 40 years. Did he also, at some point, lose his grip on reality?

As the conflict spread across Libya, Qadhafi made a number of bizarre statements to members of the media, denying that demonstrators were angry with the government and even claiming that any conflict that might be unfolding was the result of drinks spiked with hallucinogenic drugs. More recently he has pledged to defend the capital, Tripoli, even as rebel forces swept through the city with surprising swiftness.

Was Qadhafi deluded about the state of his nation or was he simply unwilling to accept that his time had come? To get some insight on the Libyan leader and other out-of-touch dictators, we spoke to Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs, and director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University. Post is a CIA veteran who has written psychological profiles of a number of world leaders.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What is it about leaders like Qadhafi that makes them unable to see or accept their own impending downfall?

Leaders like this? I'm not sure there are other leaders like Qadhafi.

In terms of many of the autocratic dictators who went down with bewildering speed in the Arab Spring, one of the reasons the public dismay—what then becomes revolutionary fervor—is so startling is they are really protected by this circle around them from understanding how their popularity is ebbing.

They can have a very unrealistic understanding and believe, as Qadhafi stated again and again, "My people, they all love me."

I found this language of his quite remarkable. And with Qadhafi as an exaggerated example, this is true of any of the other leaders, too—namely, they believe they have widespread support. If there are public demonstrations against them, that must reflect outside agitators. This was true with [ousted Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak as well. He spoke of outside conspiracies.

But it is particularly true of Qadhafi. There is an interesting kind of almost syllogism for him: "My people all love me, and therefore if there is anyone protesting against me, they are not really my people, and that must be a consequence of outside provocation." And one of the points that he made early on was that this was crazed youth who were on hallucinogens with which their Nescafe had been laced, which I thought was rather creative, really.

I found Qadhafi's language in general very striking. And what is most interesting about it is it is entirely in the first person singular: "My people all love me. They will support me. My people, they love me." It was very "me" centered. A vivid contrast—and this will seem like a ludicrous comparison—was Churchill during World War II. Churchill always spoke in first person plural, and his way of strengthening the morale of his people was to talk about "us," "our trials and tribulations," to identify with the people. It was a remarkable case of charismatic leadership. Qadhafi, in contrast, speaks only about himself. He identifies himself as the creator of Libya, and one of his early quotes said, "I created Libya, and I can destroy it."

Are Qadhafi and other deposed leaders deluded in thinking all is well in their kingdom or their country?

Deluded isn't quite the word, because if you're surrounded by a group of sycophants who tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear, you can be in touch with reality by psychological tests but quite out of touch with reality politically. With Saddam Hussein, this was particularly true—where to provide criticism of him was either to lose your job or lose your life. Everyone was constantly praising him and his brilliance, and he was spared wise council.

In addition to these circles of sycophants, is narcissism a common trait among autocrats?

That is a wonderful question. I'm just putting the finishing touches on my capstone book, which will be called Dreams of Glory: Narcissism and Politics. I see narcissism as being a very powerful explanatory factor for many of these leaders, who display a number of traits of narcissism.

One is they have a really exalted self-concept on the surface, and are very sensitive to slight or any information to the contrary. So they can get very angry if someone questions them.

Secondly, when there is something that shatters that image—and this will be interesting to see what happens with Qadhafi—there can be what's called a narcissistic rage. So, for example, with Saddam Hussein as he was exiting Kuwait, lighting the oil wells on fire—that was probably an example of that.

Their interpersonal relationships are very disturbed, and they surround themselves with people who make them feel good. So that it is really a great hazard to in any way criticize the leader.

Qadhafi did a great deal to hollow out the institutions of government, and while he said that he couldn't give up his position because he had no position—which was literally true—he was appointed the eternal guide of the Libyan people, with no authority over them. But in fact, 20 percent of the people's committees had counterintelligence responsibilities for sniffing out people plotting against him, who were always dealt with very harshly. Even when people fled Libya he would track them down, and he even made an assassination attempt of a Libyan exile living in the United States early on.

In a profile that you wrote for Foreign Policy in March, you mention that Qadhafi has some hallmarks of a borderline personality. How does that manifest itself?

This will sound slightly sarcastic, but the borderline refers to individuals—it kind of comes from the borderline between neurosis and psychosis—who can often function perfectly rationally but may under certain stresses go below the border and have their perceptions distorted and their actions impaired. The two circumstances where Qadhafi seems to go below the border are A, when he's succeeding; and B, when he's failing.

An example of when he's succeeding would be when he was marching toward Benghazi with very little resistance. He can really get almost high and feel invulnerable. When he promised he would search down his enemies from room to room, which partially contributed to the NATO reaction to him, that's an example of that kind of exaggerated belligerent high he can go on.

On the other hand, when he is suffering, when he is under pressure, and particularly when he is not being seen as the powerful and exalted leader—and that's really the case to an extreme now—it hits another place in his psychology, and that's the kind of noble Arab warrior who will stand tall against superior force.

There was an example in the 1970s when he had declared that Libyan sovereignty extended to 200 miles off its coast, when international waters start at 12 miles. He declared that anyone who crossed this "line of death" would be subject to attack. The U.S. was planning maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra and went inside this 200-mile zone. Qadhafi sent out three sorties of jets against them, which were promptly shot down. But after, it was interesting. He said, "I want to thank the United States for making me a hero to the Third World." Standing tall against a superior adversary has great value in the Arab world.

In your view, is there anything that Qadhafi could have done to remain in power or is he just fundamentally out of touch with Libya today?

One should remember back to Saddam Hussein again, and how long it was before we finally found him. I believe that until the end he believed that he could get past this and would reach heroic stature for standing up against the enemy, and that his people would support him.

A couple of questions get asked about leaders here. A, would he go off to a lush exile as, say, [former Haitian president] "Baby Doc" Duvalier did? Or B, would he commit suicide? I don't think either of those is in the cards for Qadhafi.

In fact, he gave this defiant speech on August 21, which insisted that he was in Tripoli and wouldn't surrender: "We cannot go back until the last drop of our blood. I am here with you. Go on. Go forward." And in a brief television statement the same day, "Go out and take your weapons, all of you. There should be no fear."

It's a rather different thing than Churchill, who was advised to move out of London and instead stayed there to absorb the Blitz along with the British people. He was sort of a role model for heroism and spoke—again in the first person plural—about, "We will stand tall, we will resist this tyranny." It was really remarkably inspiring.

But with Qadhafi, again, it's always the "me," and that goes back to your narcissism. He has a very difficult time, as most narcissists do, empathizing with the pain and suffering of others. Everything is about him.

So how do you see this playing out for Libya?

Well, it's quite clear that the rebels are in control, but things will not really be fully clarified until Qadhafi is either killed, forced to surrender when there's no one left around him or goes down in a blaze of bullets. I gather there has been some talk about him going into exile in Tunisia. That's not totally out of the question, but if he does so, that's not with the idea of giving up so much as temporarily taking refuge there in order to continue on as the leader of Libya.

So I think that there's every reason to believe that what we are seeing is the last act, but it could be prolonged until they actually succeed in capturing him.

Of course part of what makes it so difficult for him to leave is the indictment by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. His son Saif al-Islam is also indicted for crimes against humanity. So there really is no way out for him.

I think it's important to note that his most important audience is the mirror. And when he says these things he really does believe them. It's sounds crazy, but it's kind of like, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the most important Muslim Arab Third World leader of them all?" And the answer is, "You, Muammar."

He is really going have a very difficult time seeing people celebrating his going down, in terms of trying to sustain that heroic inner image.

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