National Security & Defense

Can the Pentagon Really Tell if Putin Is Autistic?

He’s hardly the first foreign leader to be put on the couch by our foreign-policy establishment.

‘Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world,” wrote the great British historian Thomas Carlyle, to open his 1840 Lectures on Heroes, “is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”

It was in that spirit that the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA, published “A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend,” in the early 1940s:

Unconsciously [Hitler] is not dealing with nations composed of millions of individuals but is trying to solve his personal conflicts and rectify the injustices of his childhood. Unable to enter into a “give-and-take” relationship with other human beings which might afford him an opportunity of resolving his conflicts in a realistic manner, he projects his personal problems on great nations and then tries to solve them on this unrealistic level. His microcosm has been inflated into a macrocosm.

That study, written with the aid of psychologists from Harvard University, the New School for Social Research, and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, was the American government’s first attempt to employ the cutting-edge techniques of psychoanalysis to gain a strategic edge in foreign affairs.

The practice persists. It was revealed this past week that the Office of Net Assessment — the Pentagon’s “internal think tank,” established by President Nixon in 1973 — tentatively diagnosed Russian president Vladimir Putin with Asperger syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder, in a study written by its “Body Leads” behavioral analysis project in 2008.

The conclusions drawn by researchers are based on an analysis of patterns of movement. “How a person (and their body) visibly reveals the self in motion,” writes the Naval War College’s Brenda Connors, who prepared the report, “ultimately offers a map to how their brain functions and how they make decisions.” For example:

[Putin] has difficulty walking, reaching, initiating from his center of gravity (the body’s source of human power) in the torso. He is not solidly in touch with the ground through the legs and feet. Such holding poses great hurdles to his perception and decision making. Because of the splitting of the body mind unity, physically (and emotionally), he actually struggles with managing power personally and politically. On a very deep level Putin overall feels a constant level of vulnerability and threats to his balance are very real psychophysically and perceptually.

Science? Or so much tosh?

In his 2003 book The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders, Jerrold Post — now a professor at George Washington University, but previously the founder and longtime director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior (CAPPB) — follows Princeton professor Fred Greenstein in trying to find a middle way between Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory and its opposite, which dismisses interior motives for impersonal “structural” and “historical” “forces”:

A leader’s personality may be especially important under four conditions: when the actor occupies a strategic location, when the situation is ambiguous or unstable, when there are no clear precedents or routine role requirements, and when spontaneous or especially effortful behavior is required. These conditions stress the importance of the context in which the actor is operating, observing that the impact of leader personality increases to the degree that the environment admits of restructuring.

One such situation seems to have been the landmark meeting of American president Jimmy Carter, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978. In his book Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, Carter attested to prepping for the summit by “poring over psychological analyses . . . which had been prepared by a team of experts with our intelligence community.”

Post led that team, adapting “the psychobiographic analysis that was a major component of the clinical case study to mental illness . . . to focus not on the early life experience that led to vulnerability to mental illness but rather on the key events that shaped a future leader.” That, they believed, would help American officials get a better sense of what made foreign leaders tick.

The CAPPB report on Sadat was unsubtly titled “Sadat’s Messiah Complex” (retitled for Carter “Sadat’s Nobel Prize Complex”); what made him tick was his view of himself “as a grand strategist.” Carter and Kissinger played to that impulse. “I always had the impression that he looked on himself as inheriting the mantle of authority from the great pharaohs, and was convinced that he was a man of destiny,” Carter wrote.

In 1990, the House Armed Services Committee heard about another “messiah” when Post presented to it a psychological profile of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Post rejected the label of Hussein as “the madman of the Middle East,” stating that his record revealed “a judicious political calculator, who is by no means irrational, but is dangerous to the extreme,” on account of a “constellation” of disturbing traits: “messianic ambition for unlimited power, absence of conscience, unconstrained aggression, and a paranoid outlook.” Post predicted that Saddam, if “backed into a corner,” would come to “a tragic and bloody final act.”

Using similar techniques — a close examination of body language, speech patterns, biographical facts, and much more — the Pentagon has profiled Moammar Qaddafi, the former dictator of Libya; Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il (and no doubt his son — particularly in light of recent events). Those profiles, and presumably many others, remain classified.#page#

Which prompts the question: Is any of this helpful? Particularly given that psychological profiling of any sort is often more art than science, and the difficulties are increased when the patient’s couch is halfway across the globe? Sure — but in its proper place. Psychological analysis is one tool among many that must be integrated into a larger vision of human behavior.

Jeffrey Shay shows how this might be done in his 1995 book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Examining similarities between the stories of Vietnam combat veterans with whom he worked as a psychiatrist, and Homer’s account of Achilles in the Iliad, Shay does not seek to “explain” Achilles’ wrath as PTSD. Instead, he writes, “Homer has seen things that we in psychiatry and psychology have more or less missed.”

Psychological analysis has the tendency — particularly in the popular imagination — to become reductionist, such that one’s Myers-Briggs Type is exhaustive, and Putin’s potential autism (a diagnosis his spokesman termed “stupidity not worthy of comment”) is an explanation rather than an observation. Psychological analysis is most valuable when it is understood as just one tool — a powerful tool, often, but a necessarily limited one — by which to understand a problem that is, finally, irreducibly complex: namely, why human beings do what they do.

Why is Putin annexing and invading? There is no one right answer. Nationalism, narcissism, and father issues could all inspire the urge for a warm-water port.

And, of course, the man does spend a lot of time topless . . .

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.

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