Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
In his inaugural speech this January, George the W. proclaimed his Mission and the nation’s in the next four years: no less than the spreading of democracy throughout the world (Note: This offer not valid in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and the Sultanate of Brunei). According to one count, he spoke the word “freedom” 27 times over the course of the oration, “liberty” fifteen times. The rattling of sabers toward Iran in the days thereafter hinted that Bush is ready to resume the neocon crusade, stalled in Iraq by a bloody occupation. Understandably, Tehran’s response continues to be “You and what army?”
Every president wants to sound lofty at the beginning of a new term, striving to make it look like a new era — whether promising a New Deal, a Great Society, or Four More Wars. And by now we have grown accustomed to the ex cathedra announcements of our Chosen One, wielding his terrible swift sword in the name of God and the American Way. Those of us cognizant, however, of the time-honored patterns of history and myth continue to watch for the inevitable fallout of hubris.
Hubris, sometimes written hybris in closer imitation of the Greek original, was a concept first discussed by Aristotle in connection with dramatic tragedy. It was the character flaw one found in the likes of Achilles, who thought himself invulnerable on the battlefield of Troy until unheeled by an arrow, or Oedipus, wrecked by his own certainty and rashness. Literature, myth, and history are replete with such examples, from the biblical David, who united the Hebrews only to sin and fall from God’s grace, to Melville’s Ahab, who pursued a mad quest against the white whale Moby Dick to the eventual destruction of himself and his crew, to Hitler, who thought he could conquer the world through sheer ruthless willpower. As best defined,
hubris is the capital sin of pride, and thus the antithesis of two ethics that the Greeks valued highly: aidos (humble reverence for law) and sophrosyne (self-restraint, a sense of proper limits). Words and phrases like the following — overweening pride; self-glorification; arrogance; insolence; overconfidence in one’s ability and right to do whatever one wants, to the point of disdaining the cardinal virtues of life; ignoring other people’s feelings; overstepping boundaries; and impiously defying all who stand in the way — are found in descriptions of people who have hubris.
This definition comes from a book that proves surprisingly telling — telling because it dwells upon this particular form of madness in political leaders, surprising because it was published by the Rand Corporation in 1994, having been commissioned by the CIA after the first Gulf War primarily to create a psychological portrait of Saddam Hussein.
In Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex: A Concept in Leadership Analysis, David Ronfeldt sketches out a twisted type of leader who rises to heights of megalomania, bringing down destruction in the process, frequently upon the very people he leads. Drunk on power, he “believes himself to be — and presents himself as being — a virtual messiah or savior who is on a crusade and has a fate, destiny, or mission that is historic, both timeless and time-changing in its implications. All is politicized in the name of the mission and the high principles it engages.” This leader defines “[g]ood and evil . . . in stark, absolute, polarizing terms, and . . . may rage against the chosen enemy in those terms. . . . Violence is rationalized in terms of high ideals . . . to validate playing the role of nemesis against the chosen enemy . . . .”
Ronfeldt quotes a number of psychologists who have studied this personality. According to one Otto Kernberg, it begins with a poor self-image, which — given the wrong kind of encouragement — rebounds as a “malignant narcissism”; the resulting paranoia leads to aggressive pre-emptive acts, a projection of one’s hostility onto imagined enemies under an inflated sense of mission. Such “narcissistic grandiosity in a leader-presumptions of ‘omnipotence and invulnerability’ — may incline him to treat crises as opportunities, and to take risks that ordinary, pragmatic leaders would avoid.”
In the throes of hubris, this “leader insists on virtually absolute power and loyalty, in ways that combine military discipline and religious devotion. . . . He does not tolerate abandonment by subordinates. And he is intolerant of both domestic and international rivals. . . . He is more likely to compete than cooperate with his international counterparts . . . .” He “thrives on defiance and confrontation . . . and he regards compromise and accommodation as signs of weakness . . . . He may exaggerate any sign of threat from the chosen enemy, and prefers military and paramilitary instruments to political and diplomatic ones. The use of force and violence, when he deems it necessary, will be seen as clean and pure.” Because this leader views himself as a solitary force against an implacable nemesis, according to Ronfeldt, his rhetoric “thrives on threat-mongering and confrontation . . . directed at the chosen enemy in ways that say ‘the more the enemy attacks us, the stronger we are.'” In other words, bring ’em on.
Adding to the problem is the megalomaniac leader’s tendency, noted by psychologist Jerrold Post, to surround himself with sycophants instead of “relationships which can assist him in accurately assessing the nature of his adversary . . . and in making mid-course corrections.” At best, the leader’s “long-term vision of the future may seem constructive and benevolent, but it depends on wreaking a great deal of vengeance and destruction in order to create a dramatic breakthrough to a new kind of time.” Or, in the evangelical terms of today’s political climate, you cannot reach the kingdom of God without Armageddon first.
David Ronfeldt’s punchline — inscribed in 1994, remember — is that such crazed leaders could never take charge of the United States. He perceives them historically only in such lightning rods as Joseph McCarthy, Malcolm X, and David Koresh, and theoretically as charismatic heads of cults championing the environment or human rights. This is undoubtedly the sort of intelligence failure that has put the CIA on the granite-topped butcher’s block.
Unfortunately, Bush has gotten away with it so far because hubris has long attached itself to the American self-image. As a nation we have always regarded ourselves as a Chosen People, bent on ladling some version of our values into other regimes. Sometimes this has turned out admirably, as with the post-World War II implantation of democratic institutions in Japan and Germany. Other times it has not looked so pretty, as in Vietnam. Too often we have preferred free markets to free people, as in Pinochet’s Chile, today’s China, or ____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite).
Spreading democracy is of course a good thing, in principle. It would be wonderful if all the people of the planet, not the least the de facto disenfranchised of our own corporate republic, had the right to choose their leaders. The Iranian government itself praised the much vaunted vote in Iraq, seeing it as a chance for the majority Shiites to assume their long postponed place in Bagdad’s sun. Under our own Ahab in the White House, however, the cost of this crusade thus far is a bankrupt treasury, many thousands dead and wounded on all sides, and more dying every day.
We have run out of allies to alienate, and we are still making enemies faster than we can kill them. Meanwhile, according to the well-informed Seymour Hersh writing in the latest issue of The New Yorker, plans are already being laid for a bombing campaign in Iran.