Former CIA Profiler: Saddam’s Arrest Can Produce ’Real Shift’ in Supporters’ Attitudes

December 18, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Dr. Jerrold M. Post, who during a 21-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency provided assessments of foreign leaders for the White House, says the capture of Saddam Hussein can have important repercussions among the fallen dictator’s followers. Post says that the initial pictures of the “psychologically wounded Saddam” could “presage a real shift” among regime loyalists. He adds that the capture “doesn’t mean the casualties will stop or the insurgency will end, but it is really an important event.”

Now a professor of psychiatry, political psychology, and international affairs at The George Washington University, Post was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 17, 2003.

More on:

Iraq

Other Interviews


You’ve been following Saddam Hussein’s life and career probably as closely as anyone outside Iraq. What was your impression of his capture?

I was quite struck by the man we saw emerging from that hole in the ground, and also rather surprised. He looked like nothing more than a scruffy street person. And he was a docile, obedient, meek individual as he complied with the doctor’s instruction to open his mouth to be examined, to have his hair searched for head lice. This was not the Saddam I was used to seeing. I think what we saw was a temporary breakdown of his characteristic psychological defenses. What emerged under this characteristically defiant, grandiose façade was a psychologically wounded Saddam.

But don’t you think that anyone who had been on the lam for so many months must have been worn out just from hiding?

Well, I’m sure that contributed. He had been [evading his pursuers] for eight months, and if the stories can be believed, he was moving every three to five hours among a network of these spider holes. This had to be a totally depleting experience. But I don’t think we should mistake the way we have seen him in the last few days for the way he will continue to be. I think this was a temporary breaking of his defenses. And we are already seeing the characteristic Saddam reasserting himself, being defiant, sarcastic, and so forth. I would certainly not be surprised during the upcoming trial or tribunal to see him follow the path of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia [on trial for war crimes in The Hague], and use the platform to appeal to his shrinking, but still present, radical Arab constituency to show himself as the man with the courage to defy the West and to try to delegitimize the platform of the trial and so forth.

More on:

Iraq

If you were still advising the CIA, what kind of information would you try to get from him and what technique would you recommend?

At least one of the areas of extreme importance to us and to the British is the question of the weapons of mass destruction: the program, the weapons themselves, where are they, did he destroy them, did he ship them out, are they still concealed? On the subject of interrogation, a number of people have asked what would it take to “break him.” In fact, attempting to “break him” is the wrong way to go. The more pressure that is put on this man, the more he tends to be defiant. I am basing my views on interrogation in part on my dealings with hardened terrorists, in a project I recently supervised where we interviewed 26 incarcerated Middle Eastern and Palestinian terrorists, from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and Fatah.

Where was that, in Israel?

In Israeli and Palestinian Authority prisons. I trained the team of interviewers to play to the ego of the subjects. These are people— one of them was sentenced to 46 consecutive life terms, another to 26 consecutive life terms— who had to make sense out of their lives. Playing to their egos is very important. They are all very proud of what they have accomplished. And as a result of our playing to their egos, they shared a great deal of what led them into the group, what it was like in the group, how they planned together. Some very insightful information emerged from this, which surely would not have happened had we been “interrogating them.” Now, having said that, I don’t know if that would work with Saddam. He is certainly very shrewd. But I think this approach has a much greater chance of success than attempting to play “hardball” with him.

What would you like to know about him that you haven’t found out from talking to others and from your readings?

I was asked by Dan Rather once: “Dr. Post, you’re a psychiatrist. What would you do if you had him on a couch in your office?” My response was, “I would run right out of the office.” Seriously, I find him quite a fascinating individual and the things I would like to find out from him I am not sure he knows himself. But he might reveal them in an interview. I make that distinction. He is a really remarkably un-insightful person. He doesn’t inquire about himself at all, as best I can tell. So in terms of him saying what his motivation was for A,B,C, or D, we will undoubtedly hear the usual external justifications and rationalizations he provides. On the other hand, what were his ultimate dreams, ambitions— which I think I know and understand in a qualitative way— how he has handled the setbacks, how he has bounced back? The nature of the relationship with his subordinates from his point of view would, I think, be a very rich lode to mine.

In his own mind, does he think he still has a chance to survive?

It depends what “survives” means. This is a remarkably resilient person who has bounced back from reversals in the past, including being in prison. He has on a number of occasions temporarily taken a retreat only to come back stronger later. During this period of being on the run in recent months, as the insurgency was growing in strength and producing an increasing wave of discontent in the United States, there was probably a part of him that was taking great comfort in that. He probably continues to believe that the United States has a Vietnam complex, is casualty-averse, and the daily stream of American [casualties] would have led him perhaps to believe that we would prematurely withdraw, that there would be political protests around the Pentagon and White House, and he could take great credit for having the courage to defy and elude the mighty, only remaining superpower.

That he is caught now is profoundly important, particularly for the people under him. There really has been in Iraq a thralldom of terror in many ways. In 1991, after the [first Gulf War] ended, those who had earlier [expressed] their enthusiasm for the imminent overthrow of Saddam were ruthlessly hunted down. They and their families were jailed, tortured, and executed. This was very prominent in the minds of his followers, some of whom were undoubtedly ambivalent about him. In many ways, this was loyalty “at the barrel of a gun.” The question of fully joining in the next phase in Iraq, of reconstruction, will only occur if they see that he was definitively killed or captured. Now, they have seen him captured. I think that can presage a real shift there. Having said that, it doesn’t mean the casualties will stop or the insurgency will end, but it is really an important event.

It wasn’t just seeing him killed or captured. They saw, temporarily at least, that broken man beneath that grandiose, threatening shell. I don’t think they can ever again see him as the powerful grand man without knowing there is that little weak man underneath. I think it is important. In fact, I’ve set in play the idea that in the architecture in which he has lived there is a metaphor for his psychology. He began life in a mud hut. He was driven to overcompensate for a very painful beginning in life and was impelled to seek dreams of glory, which he achieved in 1990 when he was finally recognized as a powerful world leader and a rescuer of Jerusalem for the Palestinians. This meant a great deal to him in fulfilling the prophesies of his uncle Khayrallah. Then not only did he descend to the mud hut again, but to a hole in the ground beneath the mud hut. In many ways that’s the architecture of his psychology, this empty vacuous destroyed self, underlying this grandiose, defiant, very powerful façade.

Explain the Jerusalem analogy and his uncle’s prophecy.

After [Iraq’s 1990] occupation of Kuwait, the Palestinians saw Saddam as their new hero. They were shouting for him from the rooftops in Gaza and in refugee camps in Jordan. It reawakened, or confirmed for him, the prophecies of his uncle that someday he would follow in the path of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonia who conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and Saladin, who regained Jerusalem in 1187 by defeating the Crusaders, and be a latter-day Gamal Abdel Nasser [the pan-Arabist who was Egypt’s president in 1956-70]. So finally his moment had come. In his eyes, he was a powerful radical pan-Arab nationalist leader in the mode of Nasser.

Why did he not cooperate more fully earlier this year when it was evident the United States was going to invade?

His historical legacy is that he was the man who had the courage to stand up to the mighty, the United States in particular. To have cooperated, revealed his mass weapons, and come clean would have given the lie to the entire meaning of his life. He could not do that, anymore than he would have committed suicide or gone into exile.

Up
Close

Top Stories on CFR

United Nations

Trump has revealed himself to be a man resistant to compromise, with few qualms about going it alone when he doesn’t get his way. For the leaders gathering for the UN General Assembly this week, the question hanging in the air is simple: Is that all there is to American diplomacy?

Hungary

The European Parliament’s vote to reprimand Hungary over its growing authoritarianism has tested the EU’s readiness to stand up to illiberalism within the bloc.

South Korea

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has had more success than many expected in Pyongyang for his third summit with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un.