Saturday, September 30, 2006

Why are Pseudo-Conservatives Addicted to "Toughness"?

In reducing the large panoply of foreign policy tools to the threatened or actual use of military force (see my post entitled Why "Conservatives Can't Do Foreign Policy, pseudo-conservatives often seem addicted to appearing "tough" rather than "soft", "flaccid", "feckless", etc. (The latter three terms have all been taken from pseudo-con critiques of other administrations foreign policy.) What is this preoccupation with appearing "tough"? It is undoubtedly different for different pseudo-cons but interestingly George W. Bush has at least twice been seen as a "narcissistic personality disorder". I am a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist so I have some expertise in this matter and I believe both these analyses of Bush merit consideration. One, by middle east historian Juan Cole, appeared in his blog, Informed Comment, on August 22, 2006, and is pretty good for a non-mental health professional. The second that I have seen came from psychologist Stephen Soldz on ZNet.

Here is a relevant bit from Soldz: "psychoanalysts have learned that narcissism is intimately connected with fear of one's weakness and vulnerability, and with aggression toward the other whose individuality is obliterated by the narcissism. As the weakness and vulnerability needs to be kept out of awareness, narcissism contributes to another process that poses dangers for narcissistic leaders like President Bush in that their narcissism contributes to an ignoring of reality, of possibility of error or other indicators of potential weakness."

George W. Bush's need to appear "strong", "resolute", tough and unbending are widely recognized. Here are a couple of revealing examples. In Ron Suskind's book on Paul O'Neill's experience as the first of Bush's Secretaries of the Treasury, The Price of Loyalty, there is a report of the very first meeting of the National Security Council occurring just 10 days after Bush's first inauguration (pp. 70-75): the meeting was to be about "Mideast Policy" and there was a brief discussion of how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush said his policy would be to disengage and let the combatants "work it out on their own." Secretary of State Powell said such a move "would unleash Sharon and the Israeli army. 'The consequences of that could be dire [said Powell]... especially for the Palestinians.' Bush shrugged. 'Maybe that's the best way to get things back in balance.' Powell seemed startled. 'Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things,' Bush said."

George W. Bush's belief in a "show of strength" may be further illuminated in another anecdote, again provided by Ron Suskind, this time in his The One Percent Doctrine (p. 215). A classmate of Bush's at Harvard Business School tells of playing basketball as captain of a team that played against another intramural team of which Bush was captain: "The game was tight. The other team's captain, Gary Engle... went up for a shot. Bush slugged him--an elbow to the mouth, knocking him to the parquet. 'What the hell are you doing?' Engle remembers saying.... Bush just smiled. Moments later, at the other end of the court, Engle went up for a rebound and felt someone chop his legs out from under him. Bush again." Later in his business career Engle ran into Jeb Bush in Florida and told him the story. "Jeb kind of laughed, Engle recalled. 'In Texas, they call guys like George 'a hard case'. It wasn't easy being his brother, either. He truly enjoys getting people to knuckle under'."

I would have to agree that these anecdotes support the view of Bush as someone whose "fear of one's weakness and vulnerability [results in] aggression toward the other whose individuality is obliterated by the narcissism." Bush's need for swagger and a big show of toughness--"Bring em on"--is not the expression of someone who is secure in his strength but one who secretly feels weak and vulnerable and covers it up with a show of bravado. In the case of George W. Bush at any rate, "toughness" in foreign policies seems built into a narcissistic personality.

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