Issue Number 28 - February 6, 2003

"Shrub" Bush's Pathological Focus On Saddam Hussein
by Alvin Wyman Walker, PhD, PD, PC













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In an unusual piece that deserves wider attention, William Raspberry ("Our Insane Focus on Iraq," The Washington Post, 9 September, 2002) laid out some of the psychological issues underlying the "Shrub" Bush's pathological obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Mr. Raspberry wrote:

The administration's monomaniacal focus on Iraq's Saddam Hussein as the fount of all terrorism was starting to sound like a clinical case of transference.... Wouldn't any clinician worth her [or his] salt observe that Hussein (without having done much of anything since last September) has become immensely bigger and more menacing precisely as Osama bin Laden (remember him?) has become less available?

To say such a thing is, I know from hard experience, to invite the incredulity of those who wonder if you are proposing to wait until Hussein "does" something before you take care of that weasel. Well, actually, yes.

It isn't as though the "something" the Iraqi president could do would change our way of life. We're not talking about Hitler (though the name keeps coming up). We're not talking about the Soviets, who did threaten to bury us. Hussein's military has been decimated (by us) and exposed as unmenacing [sic]. What threat has Iraq uttered against us to justify the war talk that permeates Washington these days?

Ah, but don't forget his weapons of mass destruction.

I don't. But it strikes me as a little weird that we are willing to take lethal, potentially globally destabilizing action on our surmise that he (1) has such weapons and (2) intends to use them against us, when, as far as I can tell, we took no useful action in the face of pretty firm knowledge before last September.

While I found Mr. Raspberry's analysis of "Shrub" Bush's obsession with Hussein incisive, I think the analysis should be extended. I also think that Mr. Raspberry misunderstands the concept of transference.

I suspect that "Shrub" Bush's obsession with Mr. Hussein has obvious transferential import in the classic psychoanalytic sense. You may be aware that in psychoanalytic therapy, the phenomenon of transference is the projection of feelings, thoughts, and wishes onto the analyst who has come to represent a significant person from the patient's past. The analyst is reacted to as though he was someone from the patient's past. While such reactions may have been appropriate to the conditions that prevailed in the patient's previous life, they are patently inappropriate and anachronistic when applied to a person, the analyst, in the present.

It should be noted that the term, transference, does not refer to reactions of the patient to the analyst that are based on reality factors in the therapeutic relationship. And so, a patient may be angry with her or his therapist if the latter misses an appointment, but to call such a reaction a manifestation of transference is incorrect.

It should also be recognized that transference can exist outside the analytic situation in relation to other people in the person's environment or life space.

Now recall a few details of "Shrub" Bush's history. As the first-born child, he spent much of his early childhood in an essentially single parent home since his father was frequently away on extended business trips. To exacerbate matters even more, he had a younger sister who died of leukemia just two months shy of her fourth birthday when "Shrub" was just seven years old. The sister's illness probably took up much of the mother's time, energy, and emotional focus making her less available to her other children. I also suspect that his mother may have been reactively depressed during this arduous and traumatic period making her even less emotionally available during a crucially important, developmental period of "Shrub" Bush's life.

Indicative of the trauma Mrs. Bush endured, after the daughter's death, her hair turned completely white while she was still in her twenties.

Lack of parental availability typically leads to lack of parent-child attunement. And lack of parent-child attunement often makes for deficient empathic ability and a relative inability to identify with others. Frequently, such youngsters become rule busters or rule breakers as adults in the psychopathic sense. Clinicians who have studied attachment have noted the similarities between the behavioral manifestations of insecure attachment and disruptive behavior disorders. Antisocial behavior is seen, in part, as a covert communication to an unresponsive, emotionally distant parental figure. Perhaps this perspective illuminates, in part, the dynamic of "Shrub" Bush's unilateralism, his disavowal of treaties, and his seeming proclivity to violate international law with impunity. It is as if he thinks rules do not apply to him.

Myriam Miedzian in "Growing Up Is Hard To Do" (The Baltimore Sun, 12 September 2000) perspicaciously and presciently addresses the assertion that "Shrub" Bush evidences "deficient empathic ability and a relative inability to identify with others." She writes:

So when he was a kid, George W. enjoyed putting firecrackers into frogs, throwing them in the air, and then watching them blow up. Should this be cause for alarm? How relevant is a man's childhood behavior to what he is like as an adult? And in this case, to what he would be like as president of the United States?

Cruelty to animals is a common precursor to later criminal violence. [In fact, the triad of cruelty to animals, fire setting, and enuresis are symptoms typically found in the histories of serial killers!] But in rural West Texas, where George W. grew up, it was not uncommon for some boys to indulge in such cruelty.

His blowing up frogs or shooting them with BB guns with friends does not have the same significance it would have if, for example, a city boy blew up the family cat. In fact, George's childhood friend, Terry Throckmorton, openly and laughingly admits, "We were terrible to animals."

But there were surely many boys in George's hometown of Midland, Texas, who would have been repelled at the thought of blowing up frogs. So how much importance should we attribute to this early behavior?

Is boy George's lack of empathy [italics mine] and cruelty not just childhood insensitivity, but rather a personality trait still present in the man? If so, we have much to be concerned about.

Last year. George W. Bush gave an interview to a Talk magazine reporter about the execution of convicted Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who became a Christian after her incarceration. Mr. Bush chose to mimic the late Karla Faye begging for mercy: "Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me."

Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois favors the death penalty but has put a temporary moratorium on executions because of recent DNA evidence exonerating a number of prisoners on death rows.

By contrast, Mr. Bush has chosen to go ahead with executions in Texas, including that of Gary Graham, whose court-appointed attorney was judicially admonished for sleeping through much of his trial. Mr. Bush's much-vaunted religious conversion seems to have done little to encourage Christian mercy.

Can this conservative be compassionate?

It takes a certain capacity for empathy [italics mine] for a man born to wealth and social standing to imagine what it is like to live on a $12,000 a year salary and be unable to afford proper medical treatment for an ill child.

As president, Mr. Bush would undoubtedly continue to oppose raising the minimum wage or providing health insurance for all American children.

When it comes to foreign policy, Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project and authors of "Getting to Yes," say that "the ability to see the situation as the other side sees it... is one of the most important skills a negotiator can posses [because] failing to deal with others sensitively... can be disastrous as negotiation."

Tragically, few men in political power excel at these qualities and many mistakes have been made in our foreign policy.

I shall never forget former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who played a major role in one of our greatest foreign policy mistakes - the Vietnam War - speaking regretfully of errors he and others made during the Cold War. In a 1988 interview, he told me that "the necessity of looking at your actions through the eyes of your opponent - that is absolutely fundamental, and we don't do that."

Do we really want a man who appears to be empathically challenged [italics mine] to hold the most powerful position in America?

But even more salient, "Shrub" Bush's developmentally immature and regressive obsession with Mr. Hussein seems to be part of an unfolding Oedipal drama. For him, the goal is to "defeat" the idealized father who "Shrub" was never able to measure up to and in whose footsteps "Shrub" seems to have assiduously sought to tread by defeating and destroying Mr. Hussein, someone his father was unable to vanquish. In this fashion, Mr. Bush hopes to win the Oedipal battle. Or as a colleague who is a socially committed, board certified psychiatrist, Dr. Carol Wolman, put it in "Diagnosing Dubya: Is the President Nuts?": "Dubya may be acting out a classical Oedipal drama - overcome Daddy to get Mommy. By deposing Saddam, when his father did not, he may want to prove himself more worthy of his mother's love. His rationale that he is avenging the [alleged] assassination attempt on George, Sr., may be a reaction formation - his way of hiding his true motive from himself." And I might add, to deny, suppress, and repress his own ambivalence and hostility toward his father.

And so we are left with foreign policy as psychodrama, as well as service to Israel and, as Nelson Mandela has pointed out, US oil interests and the military industrial complex.

Alvin Wyman Walker, PhD, PD, PC, is a clinical psychologist/psychotherapist. He has a PhD in Personality/Social Psychology/Cultural Anthropology and the equivalent of a second PhD in Clinical Psychology.

He has spent his professional life working with "underserved" patients -- people of color, working class whites, and children and adolescents -- in public settings and is currently in private practice.

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