Does it help to call a dictator "insane" ?

This topic has come up tangentially in other threads, but perhaps it deserves to be addressed more directly. It certainly seems to have become common lately, including on this board to dismiss Saddam and Kim with words such as “insane” and “crazy”; words often applied to other dictators who were perhaps only “eccentric” until they armed themselves sufficiently.

But it seems to me that there are 2 main problems with casual use of such words:

  1. It isn’t necessarily derived from facts, but confuses simple brutality and thirst for power with separation from reality and unpredictable behavior,
  2. It narrowly constrains the range of options and assessments of criticality when deciding how to deal with him,
  3. It leaves no room for Opal in a world gone mad.

It certainly hasn’t seemed to me that the actions of Kim and Saddam, as well as the governing elites that surround them, cannot be explained by simple desire to maintain power and its perquisites, at any cost to anyone else. They have tried to consolidate and expand their power, yes, but hardly unpredictably or irrationally. Perhaps some of you disagree and will be willing to explain how. But to characterize brutality and power-hunger as actual, clinical insanity, beyond being simply intellectually lazy, is itself a separation from reality and an invitation to act toward that person in ways with unnecessarily disastrous consequences.

Why? Because, when you have declared a dictator insane, you have dismissed any possibility that his behavior can be modified or even necessarily contained. You have shut out any possibility for action toward him other than his removal (regardless of its desirability) at some not-too-distant point. You have made any assessment of his threat to you automatically grave and, to some extent, imminent. You have dismissed any possibility of his military power being intended for defensive, even domestic, purposes, since of course madmen are aggressive. You have made military action of some degree not only necessary, but of the bluntest possible form (since “force is the only language he understands” is part of the character assessment). You have made it necessary for people to die. And all because you haven’t been willing to use enough intellectual humility to realize that the world and its people are complicated, and that an effort to “know your enemy” at the very least is absolutely required.

So what good does using such a glib characterization do? Make you feel good and moral and evolved?

Well, if the person who calls the dictator insane is one of his subjects/citizens, it probably doesn’t help the subject much. But some dictators have been mentally ill. Stalin was paranoid. Hitler was delusional, addicted to amphetimines, and probably obsessive-compulsive (Some democratically elected leaders have been mentally ill also. Lincoln was manic-depressive, Nixon probably paranoid, and Jefferson may have suffered from Aspeger’s Syndrome).

However, if you just say “The leader is crazy” and don’t go on to analyze the country’s policies or their motivations, you’re right, that’s not helpful.

You answered your own question, **ElvisL1ves **

There are some circumstances when constraining the range of options is a good idea. E.g., it would have been good to constrain Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter from negotiating an agreement that trusted North Korea. Their naivety helped create a possibility of nuclear war.

(bolding mine). Elvis herein lies the problem with your OP: there is no such thing as “actual, clinical insanity.” It is a popular term, devoid of clinical meaning (though it has a specific legal meaning not relevant here).
In any event, the desire to maintain power and its perqs at any cost to others is irrational in the psychological meaning of the term, be it classified as anti-social personality disorder, megalomania, or some other mental disorder.

december, that is an asinine statement. You were alive in 1994, weren’t you? If you may recall, nuclear war was just as likely then as now. The possibility has existed for at least the past 8 years, and was created by N. Korea, not Clinton and Carter.


No, I’m a precocious seven-year old. :slight_smile:

Not quite. NK could not have conducted nuclear war or sold nuclear weapons in 1994. They could do so today.

Yes, that’s true. Still, the the 1994 agreement was not helpful. In retrospect, other alternatves would have been better.

Ok, Sua, I’ll back off the word “clinically”, even if that is the sense in which it is meant by those who refer to “insanity”. The intended thrust of the OP was about use of such words as a substitute for considering the dictator’s motivations, or even as a substitute for thought itself.

As you suggest, though, if you’re going to do an armchair diagnosis, it is certainly necessary to identify the right disorder.

december, you have provided an excellent example of someone who has constrained his thoughts to the point where he is actually proud of having done so.

Well, sure, but there are a lot of things that seem to be a good idea that, in retrospect, turn out wrong…like disco. In this case, the '94 agreement apparently didn’t have enough oversight. That doesn’t mean that negotiations are useless, or that N. Korea can’t be negotiated with.

Look, personally, I think Kim Jong Il is probably crazy. But that doesn’t mean that he, or N. Korea in general, don’t have specific interests or policy goals, or that our only option wrt N. Korea is overthrowing him. In a more general sense, because somebody is mentally ill doesn’t mean that they can’t act rationally, or that they can’t function.

The problem with N. Korea isn’t that they’re ruled by someone who’s mentally ill. The problem with them is that they’re an aggressive totalitarian state with an impovershed and increasingly desperate population, a large army, possible nuclear weapons, and claims on their richer southern neighbor, our ally, with whom they’ve had an uneasy truce for 50 years.

:confused: The belief then (and I don’t think anything has come along to contradict the belief) was that N. Korea had at least one constructed nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapons = ability to conduct nuclear war.


Yes, perhaps, but if you don’t make bigoted claims that your enemy is a member of some despised minority class, it’s hard to get all the jingo-puppets to chanting the exact same tune. :slight_smile:
Accusations of insanity allow the accuser certain types of behavior that would otherwise be unacceptable.

I don’t think that your premise is either obvious or proven. I don’t think that people are automatically blinded by their own rhetoric. Calling someone insane is not the same as thinking that they are insane.

To give an example, I’ve been involved in some nasty litigation, where accusations of both criminality and mental defect - of both clients and attorneys - have been made in court filings and the like. It didn’t mean that we weren’t able to negotiate with the other side, either on day to day procedural issues or in settlement negotiations.


P.S. december, why would you qualify as “precocious”? :stuck_out_tongue:

I’ve been one of the ones calling him nuts (although I did say that he may not be literally ‘insane’ in the sense that he can’t tell fantasy from reality).

See, I believe in dealing with people as they are, and not as I wish them to be. I think it’s better to call attention to a leader’s instability and penchant for bizarre and irrational behaviour, than to pretend that a dangerously unstable man is a reasonable person, just so we can sign treaties with him and pat ourselves on the back for ‘maintaining the peace’. Only to find out later on that all you did was buy yourself some time at great expense.

Is Kim insane? I dunno. But he’s pretty bizarre, and does dangerously foolish things. For instance, he’s a movie buff, and wants to be a great movie producer. So what did he do? He kidnapped his favorite director and movie star from South Korea, and threw them in jail for four years until they agreed to make movies for him. They agreed, and then escaped at the first opportunity. This sparked an international incident, and heavily damaged relations between the two countries. Does this sound like a particularly sane thing to do?

He apparently has a number of strange habits. He maintains a harem of enslaved pleasure women, and reportedly likes to be serviced by them while he watches Daffy Duck cartoons. Is that normal behaviour, even for a dictator? Maybe. But I wouldn’t want him watching my kids.

Did you know that his people haven’t heard his voice for 8 years, and even then it was only one sentence? He claims to have godlike powers. He writes movie reviews and sends them to South Korean newspapers, which don’t publish them.

Kim Jong Il’s regime has been described as a ‘cult’. Kim claims that he is a God, and that the earth shook when he was born. He claims to be able to turn a land into a paradise just by touching a picture of it. Is some of this just posturing by a dictator? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But’s it’s still a bizarre claim.

Kiim ordered the abduction of a number of Japanese women, including a 13 year old girl, because he thought he could turn them into sex slaves and spies. Then, bizarrely, he told Japan he did it when there was no evidence that they knew, kicking off another international incident.

The South Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the group that probably knows him better than anyone outside of South Korea, has labelled him as being mentally unstable.

Is he literally insane? I dunno. But it’s clear that he is unpredictable, reckless, and prone to doing bizarre things in the face of all good sense. For example, when told about the poor economic conditions in his country, he decided to ‘fix’ it by ordering prices raised by 30%, kicking off a brutal round of inflation. On another occasion, Kim was visiting a factory and noticed that the showroom in front was warmer and sunnier than the factory itself. In a show of ‘humanity’, Kim ordered that the factory be relocated into the showroom, and the showroom into the factory.

Kim’s government itself has been described as being anything from ‘unusual’ to ‘bizarre’. He has organized 10 men around him and leads them as a god on earth or some such. That, and his habit of brutally executing anyone who dares to disagree with him, means that his government probably can’t be counted on to be much of a moderating influence. And of course, we have the evidence of bizarre governmental actions like trying to tunnel under the DMZ to invade South Korea, and ordering the bombing, assassinations, and kidnapping of many citizens of other countries. For example, Kim has been personally accused of order the bombing of 17 South Korean officials, including four cabinet members, and the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987 that killed 115 people.

Is calling him insane helpful? It’s a hell of a lot more helpful than ignoring all this because you desperately want to pull a rug over your head and pretend there is no problem. Calling him insane is shorthand for, “He is not the kind of person who can EVER be trusted with nuclear weapons.”

I find it amazing that people who used to scream in fear because ‘senile’ Ronnie Raygun had his finger on the button would shrug when a maniac like Kim Jong Il prepares to build hundreds of them. You must hate Bush an awful lot, because you’re risking your children’s lives to oppose him.

I didn’t know that or didn’t remember that. If you are corrrect, then I was wrong.

This cite says NK had enough plutonium in 1994, but it does not specifically say that they had constructed a weapon

Do you have a cite regarding the constructed nuclear weapon in 1994?

ElvisL1ves, you are correct that I am proud of having constrained my thoughts. I have learned that there’s value in eliminating wishful thinking, rationalization, and unrealistic alternatives, although they may be attractive. That way one can spend more effort focusing on how to achieve the best of the realistic options. YMMV.

Precisely, december. The easy part of making a nuke is assembling the components. The hard part is getting the fissile material. So, back in 1994, whether or not they had actually assembled the nuke, the N. Koreans were capable of doing so. If they did not, it is only because of Clinton’s deal, and thereby the reverse of what you asserted would be true - Clinton averted the threat of nuclear war for 8 years.


You make that sound like such a bad thing.

I don’t believe this is what is happening.

Quite the opposite, to realize that your opponents motivations are unusual or bizarre (as in this instance) is to improve your options, because it frees your thought up into considering options that would be unavailable in dealing with a normal mind.

For instance, the 1994 agreement entered into by the previous administration was based on the assumption that what North Korea wanted was electric power. Therefore, the agreement was that the West would supply fuel oil and food while they built NK a power reactor.

Clinton and Co. assumed that no normal leader would endanger the peace of the region, or leave his people to starve, while he pursued nuclear arms. It was assumed, in other words, that Kim wanted what a “sane” person wanted.

This assumption was wrong. Kim values power in the form of nukes more than he values the lives of his own people - from our point of view, as sane people, a “crazy” choice. He is even willing to risk nuclear war, and to offend the most powerful nation on earth, to gain membership in the nuclear club. Listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang over the last few days - talk about war with the US. Would any rational person, whose goals were peace and prosperity for his own nation, speak so?

In the same way, Saddam Hussein allegedly invaded Kuwait because he believed that the West either approved of it (if you believe the lefties), or would not act, because they were afraid of him. Such a belief is also marginally irrational, at least to anyone with a “sane” perspective on the role of oil in the world economy, and how threats to the oil supply from someone who is clearly trying to build a Middle Eastern empire for himself would be regarded. But Saddam was able to convince himself that such was so.

If someone has labelled Saddam as “crazy” (in the slang sense of the word, not as a clinical diagnosis), perhaps the alleged conversation with the US ambassador before the Kuwait invasion would have been conducted differently, if Gillespie knew that she was dealing with someone whose motives and ideas were far outside the norm.

Similarly with Kim. If Clinton knew that Kim was motivated, not by what a “normal” person would want, but entirely by the lust for power, the 1994 agreement would either have not been entered into, or it would have been radically different.

Of course, that probably means the crisis would have happened in 1994 instead of now. Your respective opinions of the abilities of Clinton and of Bush would affect whether you consider that a good thing or not.

Calling a spade a spade does no harm and some good. Calling Kim and/or Saddam “crazy”, in the sense that their motivations might lead them into doing stupid things, also does no harm, and at least clarifies the situation.

Appeasing Hitler (pace Godwin’s Law) did no good, because Hitler was “crazy”. He was motivated by other than what was believed about him in the 1930s. To recognize his megalomania, and to combat it directly, creates the possibility that WWII might even have been averted. Recognizing the megalomania of Kim at least brings the possibility of WWIII no closer, and may even increase the chance of its avoidance.

Which I am sure we can all pray that God in His mercy will allow us to avoid.


Great post, Shodan. One nitpick: The Iraq ambassador’s name was April Glaspie

Look on the bright side, december, at least I didn’t call her Kildare.

That’s what I get for relying on memory. Thanks for the correction.


I wouldn’t say all dictators are crazy, but to become dictator you have to be willing to do things that ordinary people aren’t willing to do. The other problem is that once you become a dictator, your grip on reality can become even more tenuous. Everyone agrees with you instantly, you only hear good news, and any inconvenient people can be dealt with easily…simply have the person dragged out and shot. It makes it difficult for a dictator to have a firm grasp of reality.

Dictators are also notoriously unable to understand how democratic countries work, and constantly underestimate them. If Bill Clinton or George Bush tolerate criticism, that must make them weak, and weak people can be bullied.

And of course, since the decision to go to war is made by only one person, wars can be started for essentially capricious reasons. Which means that dictatorships are inherently more unstable and unpredictable than open countries.

While the dictator may not actually be crazy, they often make what seem like crazy decisions, because they don’t have self-correcting abilities of democratic institutions. So calling a dictator crazy may be technically innaccurate (or it may be accurate), but for practical purposes it can be hard to tell the difference.

True enough, I did not differentiate there - I didn’t see a need to. Using a word you don’t mean must be the result of some other calculation that it will do some good, and that sort of tactical lying does have a place. Just not in a diplomatic context - the results of the self-imposed constraints I listed also seem, I think, to apply even when one is exhorting others to use them.

shodan, nicely put. I would suggest, though, that the degree of a dictator’s power-lust, and the divorcement from reality that Lemur866 described well, can be progressive conditions. The 1994 agreement may have made sense for the 1994 Kim, although it might not in 2003 for the 2003 Kim.

I also think Lemur866 makes a good point. Surrounding yourself with toadies and lickspittles almost guarantees that your view of the world will develop into something like folie a dieux - also a symptom of insanity.

And would tend to make it progressive as well, as you mention. The problem is what happens while the “crazy” dictator is being taught that reality is not subject to his whims.

Like WWII and the Gulf War.