In early 1970, the US Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] asked a number of psychoanalysts to draw up a profile of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who was thirty years of age at the time. Mr. Qaddafi’s psychological profile was not an exception, for the CIA had drawn up psychological profiles for most foreign leaders since the 1940s, and these were made up of a combination of political and psychological analysis. These profiles represent a major tool for US decision-makers as they revealed the psychological nature of foreign leaders that they are dealing with. Such reports usually contain information about the leaders’ background, their personal relations, their family, as well as their social, personal, and professional relations. These reports also contain a list of subjects and issues that these leaders either react positively or negatively towards, as well as occasionally some scandalous details (of a sexual nature) regarding their private lives.
This scientific methodology (of producing a psychological profile) of foreign leaders – developed within the CIA and the US Department of Defense – did not utilize practical clinical methods [of psychology], as it is based – in most cases – on studying the leader in question. These reports rely on multiple sources; most prominently reports made by intelligence agents that generally rely on incidents, rumors, and lies, alongside facts. Therefore those reading such reports cannot exclusively rely on them; indeed reliance on such reports reached its height during the 1980s. Despite the huge developments that have taken place in the study of [psychological] methodology in a professional and academic framework, specialist researchers continue to be divided over the feasibility or effectiveness of such psychological studies of political figures, particularly as they [the foreign leaders] are not subjected to a clinical medical examination.
For over 40 years, the psychological profile of Mr. Qaddafi was filled with information; some of which was correct while some of it was nothing more than pure flights of fantasy. In addition to this, his profile was filled with endless analysis and comments by senior specialists on Qaddafi’s personality, and his development and experience over the past decades. One can consider the “psychological profile” of Muammar Qaddafi as being between among the largest of such files, alongside the profiles of figures like Fidel Castro and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The “Los Angeles Times” was perhaps the first newspaper to publish information leaked from Colonel Gaddafi’s “psychological profile” with sources in 1981 describes Gaddafi as being “an exceptionally troubled personality, suffering from a serious inferiority complex.” In the early 1990s, one insider who viewed Qaddafi’s “psychological profile” told US “Foreign Policy” magazine that “there was a tendency in the beginning to view Gaddafi as a superficial (naïve) personality, but the profiles that were drawn up on him showed him to be crazy like a fox.” (Psychology and the CIA: Leaders on the Couch. Thomas Omestad, Foreign Policy Magazine, August 1994).
Nicholas Hagger has indicated that Qaddafi was in contact and communicated with US intelligence since the beginning of the Libyan [Fateh] revolution, after US intelligence agents noticed that he exhibited a tendency to criticizing Soviet interference in the Arab world. Since 1971, it is clear that Qaddafi operated in parallel to what the CIA wanted from him, namely for him to emerge as a nationalist leader hostile to the Soviet Union. This may perhaps explain Qaddafi sending airplanes and financial assistance to Pakistan during its war with India – which was backed by the Soviet Union – as well as his objection to an airplane carrying Sudanese citizens accused of being Shiites seeking to overthrow the [Gaafar] Nimeiri regime in Sudan [from landing in Libya]. However Gaddafi soon changed his position, with the US becoming his number one enemy, which led to him supporting a broad spectrum of groups and revolutionary and terrorist elements around the world. (The Libyan revolution: It’s Origins and Legacy by Nicholas Hagger). The CIA helped Gaddafi in exposing attempts to overthrow him at the beginning of the [Fateh] revolution; however since that time he has – as some argue – been overcome by paranoia and has begun to mistrust everybody, believing himself to be a CIA target. Colonel Qaddafi has exhibited contradictory – and occasionally outrageous – behavior, and we have sometimes heard him ramble incoherently. Even his personal appearance, wearing strange and brightly colored clothing, failed to camouflage the mistakes of his regime, and his victims, who include some of those closest to him. More than this, his behavior – which has been the subject of criticism – as his desire to attract attention to himself, manifested in the many titles that he has bestowed upon himself, the female “Amazonian” bodyguards that he surrounded himself with, as well as his views that were ripe for mockery. However under all the bright clothing, changing views, and contradictory titles, there is a very resourceful and quick-witted personality who has been able to remain in power despite all the sanctions imposed on his regime and attempted assassinations. Qaddafi knows when to back down, and how to avoid the storm, and he is capable – in an extremely dangerous manner – of deception. Therefore, at times he would kill those close to him or place them under guard, and at other times allow his opponents to escape into exile, or forgive them and bestow them with gifts. This is what made many people unable to trust him, or predict his actions.
There is one defining example of Qaddafi’s ability to surrender at a critical moment, for in 2003 he signed a deal with the Americans following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. He sold the secrets of the trade in internationally proscribed weapons, and paid billions of dollars in order to resolve the issue of compensating victims of terrorist acts that his regime was embroiled in. Therefore it was not surprising for former CIA Director Michael Hayden to comment recently that Gaddafi was an important and reliable partner over the last few years in the war on terror.
In his book “The Struggle for Survival” (1993), Geoffrey Simons writes that Gaddafi continued to fluctuate between supporting militias and terrorist groups and between turning on them and providing information about them to different intelligence agencies. Therefore we can view Gaddafi – and his survival in power – as if he were the leader of a gang that is involved in every illegal operation but who cooperates with the security agencies in order to eliminate his opponents or alleviate the pressure that he is facing. Therefore, dealing with Gaddafi means dealing with a “liar” – as [former US President] Ronald Reagan once said – but temporary deals can be made with him, so long as this is in his interests.
Observers have divided over how this difficult to interpret leader – who is in his seventies –will end, particularly following the outbreak of the armed uprising against him. There are those who consider Qaddafi a narcissistic personality who is living in a world of delusion, and who will therefore fight until his last breath. Whilst others believe that Qaddafi is nothing more than an attention-seeking dictator who has squandered Libya’s oil wealth and who will flee the country as soon as he fills the noose tightening around him. However most analysts have a bleak view of Qaddafi, viewing him as a psychopathic personality who enjoys unusual intelligence despite his abnormal behavior, and he therefore is capable of strategic planning in the manner of a cold-blooded criminal.
Professor Jerrold M. Post, who founded and directed the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, put forward an important analysis of Qaddafi’s personality following 20-years’ experience overseeing leaders “psychological profiles.” He also recently wrote that Qaddafi took drugs to treat severe depression. As for Gaddafi’s psychological state, Post said that “Qaddafi can best be characterized as having a borderline personality. The “borderline” often swings from intense anger to euphoria. Under his often “normal” façade, he is quite insecure and sensitive to slight. His reality testing is episodically faulty. While most of the time Qaddafi is ‘above the border’ and in touch with reality, when under stress he can dip below it and his perceptions can be distorted and his judgment faulty.” [Qaddafi under siege by Jerrold M. Post, Foreign Policy Magazine, 15 March].
Whatever Qaddafi’s end, his mental illness has affected – directly or indirectly – Libya’s modern history, and perhaps we must ask: to what extent has his policies and his suppression altered the psyche of millions of his people who have suffered under his rule?
In reality, we are facing a country that has suffered from mentally ill governance, and it may take Libya a long time – as any victim – to emerge from the nightmare of the past, and learn to live for the future.
Published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on August 24, 2011.