“Power-Over” as a Compensation

Freudian depth-psychology remains an underutilized tool in interpreting the motivation and personality of destructive political figures such as George W. Bush.  A president may deny his own destructive hostility, projecting it onto “the other” (ethnicity, nation)—which is then demonized as a malevolent threat.  In extreme situations—such as in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks–both “leader” and “followers” may regress to primitive “splitting”:  “we” are all-good, blameless and “they” are all-bad, hateful “evil-doers.”  Group-regression occurs when the citizenry abandons mature, inductive rationality and succumbs to such dangerously oversimplified, defensive emotional-states (hysteria, paranoid projections, etc.). 1  Ultimately, as Freudian psychologists have demonstrated, psychological defenses—such as repression, regression, denial, displacement, dissociation, rationalization, projection–“protect” the anxiety-stricken ego, but at the expense of accurate reality-assessment.

Here I am briefly focusing on the urge for “power-over” as a psychological “compensation.”  Since the ego exhibits integrative functions, it seeks to “make whole” the weakened or traumatized psyche.  But in so doing—in binding psychic wounds and strengthening adaptation—it may indeed create new problems.  As a dangerous over-compensation, the drive for “power-over” may counteract humiliating weakness with invincible strength, overcoming the trauma of victimhood through exercising powerful domination (which Anna Freud termed “identification-with-the-aggressor”).  Concurrently, the unconscious desire for revenge—when the original perpetrators are often long-dead and “forgotten”—may be satisfied through displacement onto people or groups which serve as available, easily-defeated substitutes.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937—the year before British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous “appeasement” of Hitler at Munich—Madeleine Albright experienced childhood as refugee.  Forced to flee from Czechoslovakia, where her father was a diplomat, the family sought safety in London–only to find themselves under siege by the Nazi Blitzkrieg.  In 1948, the father posted as Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia, the family was again forced to flee when the Communists came to power.  Given the Nazi scourge against Jews, her parents had chosen to raise her as a Catholic—and it was only in 1997, after a journalist broke the story, that Albright claimed she first learned of her Jewish background (and the fate of so many of her relatives–in concentration camps).

Former U.S. client Saddam Hussein, although crushingly defeated in the Gulf War, remained intolerably recalcitrant.  In her single-minded obsession with removing the tyrant from power, UN Ambassador Albright made her infamous remark (1996) that deliberately killing some half-million Iraqi children through the draconian U.S.-UN sanctions was “worth it.”  A year later (March 26, 1997), Secretary of State Albright revealed even further the depth of her punitive vengefulness: “We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.”

As for the Serbia/Kosovo conflict, Albright had little interest in negotiation or humanitarian initiatives.  “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” she told a flummoxed Gen. Colin Powell. 2  She would tolerate no “appeasement” of Milosevic’s aggression, later insisting on his extradition and trial by a UN-sponsored Hague tribunal.  Despite few similarities between Milosevic and Hitler sixty years earlier, Albright liked to tell people: “My mindset is Munich.”3  In spring 1999, “Albright was rallying the 19 members of NATO…to continue the bombing….[F]ew Serbs blame Mr. Milosevic for the crisis.” 4

In her retirement, Albright wrote the usual self-justifying memoirs.  (Her unwavering fixation on strength and power—she even claimed she could leg-press 400 pounds!—is also reflected in her book’s title: The Mighty and the Almighty).  Yet if, instead of convenient rationalizations, Albright had focused her awareness on an unflinching self-analysis, she might have found herself identifying with the confession of another war criminal.  In her testimony to the Hague Tribunal, Biljana Plavsic, ex-president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, stated: “In our obsession never again to become victims, we had allowed ourselves to become victimizers.”5

  1. Vamik D. Volkan, M.D., Blind Trust, Pitchstone, 2004. []
  2. Colin Powell, My American Journey. Ballantine, 2003; p. 576. []
  3. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell. Basic Books, 2002. []
  4. Maggie O’Kane, “Rage Unites Battered Town,” Guardian, April 12, 1999. []
  5. Ian Black, “Albright Makes Plea for War Criminals,” Guardian, December 17, 2002. []

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.