The Limited But Real Power of Power Psychology:

A Review of The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders


Friday, May 16,2003

Jerrold Post, ed., The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders: with Profiles of Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton (Univ. of Michigan Press 2003)

Jerrold M. Post was for twenty-one years at the center of the Central Intelligence Agency's efforts to develop useful psychological profiles of foreign leaders for our nation's senior leadership. Now, Post heads a program on psychological profiling at George Washington University. He is also the editor of The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders, a book that canvasses the history and proliferation of the field he was instrumental in shaping.

Post has produced an interesting book. It's not going to be a bestseller, and it is burdened with chapters of mostly unhelpful statistical analysis. However, the Saddam Hussein profile alone is well worth the price of admission.

As Post recounts, psychological profiling - like many such Orwellian things - grew out of the U.S.'s wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS). OSS prepared a psychological assessment of Adolph Hitler that was widely circulated and, even more impressively, read by the senior leadership of the Allies. This work set the pattern of political profiles for the next few decades: a carefully researched biography, in essence, with psychological observations along the way.

Hitler, as one might have suspected, had a lousy childhood, came to view himself as something rather special indeed, and later came to view himself as the essential embodiment of his nation.

Post continues his history of political profiling with an insider's account of the preparations for the Camp David summit meeting of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Post was the key man developing briefings for President Jimmy Carter, and he provides a unique and interesting account of how Carter prepared for the summit and attempted to exploit the fissures and salients of the two leaders' psychological makeups.

Sadat was playing for the history books - possessing, in Post's prescient words at the time, a "Nobel Prize complex." Begin, on the other hand, was susceptible to losing sight of the big picture in his occupation with the details of any given proposal. Moreover, and unhelpfully, Begin was more apt to speak to issues of policies in provocative and emotional language.

All negotiations are personal, and President Carter came to believe that the fine adjustments in stroking and presentation that were the output from Post's work were a key factor in the achievement of the Camp David Peace Accords.

Statistics, in This Field, May Be Far Less Helpful Than They Seem

The smartest thing ever said in the twentieth century was that in the modern world, hard variables dwarf soft. As in economics, political science, and virtually every academic field, thus it is in political profiling as well.

As Post's history recounts, the field of psychological profiling has graduated, alas, from biographical and intuitive analysis to the seeming objectivity of statistical analysis. A fair portion of this book consists of papers reflecting the new "scientific" analysis of political leaders through quantitative analysis, particularly the computer-aided analysis of writings and speeches.

I have perhaps already shown my cards, but I am unconvinced that tallies of how many times first-person pronouns are used really tells you all that much. To jump ahead a bit, these studies find, for instance, that Bill Clinton uses many more qualifying phrases in his speech than does Saddam Hussein. I did not find myself shocked or even edified by this revelation and the whole area struck me as verging on data for data's sake.

The sexy part of this book is the profiles of Clinton and Hussein. I was not engaged by the Clinton profile, but that may be simply my own quirk. Clinton is like the Guggenheim Bilbao - you either think he is brilliant or an abomination. We are all too close to him to have anything like objectivity on the man. According to his profile, he had a lousy childhood, came to view himself as something rather special indeed . . .

Saddam Hussein's profile, on the other hand, was quite fascinating. That is particularly true since, given the editor's roots in government circles, the reader can have a fair degree of confidence that the profile in the book is largely the same profile materials reviewed by the decision-makers in the current administration.

Saddam Hussein, I cannot help but observe, had a lousy childhood, came to view himself as something rather special indeed, and later came to view himself as the essential embodiment of his nation. But his biography is less familiar, and thus does serve to humanize (slightly) the ruthless tyrant.

Had my father died while I was in utero, had my mother refused to see me for the first three years of my life, and had I been raised by a wacky uncle who imprinted on me that I was the next Nasser, I might be more than a little screwed up as well. I might even have had a shot at a career in politics.

The Saddam profile goes through, in great and convincing detail, an analysis demonstrating that he is not, strictly speaking, insane. Rather, Saddam, like a Hitler or a Stalin, has a history of being cunningly instrumental in his effort to deliver himself to what he perceives is his rightful place among the first order of world leaders.

Particularly of interest is the account of how Hussein bounced back from his humiliation in the (first) Gulf War. The answer is that he was really still on the ropes until the oil for food program gave him the economic resources (and the legal pathway around the embargo) to shore up his internal control by enhancing his regional profile and importance. Hussein was shocked and surprised by his isolation in the first Gulf War, and the steps he took to Islamicize himself and to engage Iraq in the economic and political life of the region were both purposeful and successful.

Iraq stood alone in 1991. Before 2003, Hussein had artfully recreated the political landscape of the region, and in part for this reason, the Middle East, both in the street and in the ministries, largely sided with Hussein in his confrontation with the United States.

Psychological Profiles - Including Saddam's - Can Be Misleading

Pity the profiler who has to publish a book on Hussein while a war is in the offing. If one were to use the Hussein profile as a judge of the worth of profiling, one would have to give a mixed verdict. The clear message of the Hussein profile is: he's not nuts, he knows when to retreat, but if he is going down he will not go down quietly.

In other words, you might have expected, and the profile would have suggested, Hussein to have played a (much) better hand of poker in the last months of his regime. His seemingly blind faith that the United States, absent United Nations blessing, would never press the point is no less bizarre than his information minister's well-chronicled pronouncements.

On the other hand, the profile's prediction that Hussein was the type to bring the house down around him if he felt he was going to fall was likely accurate. In addition, based on news reports, this prediction clearly impacted the way the United States fought the war. The very first operations that special forces undertook, even before the ground campaign had begun, were to isolate and secure the oil fields, dams and other targets. Why? Psychological, and historical, predictions: These targets would have been potential venues for a Messianic eco-disaster of the sort Hussein unleashed when he set the Kuwaiti oil fields alight in 1991.

Insights like this make the book well worth reading. As for psychological profiling itself, it is hard to assess its ultimate utility. The fact that it exists and people pay attention to the profiles, however, makes it worth knowing about.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C.

FindLaw Career Center

    Select a Job Title

      Post a Job  |  Careers Home

    View More