Authoritarian Sadism in U.S. “Foreign Policy” (Part 1)

Freudian depth-psychology remains an under-utilized tool in interpreting motivation and personality of recent American “leaders”  who have chosen to deploy massively destructive military force on large civilian populations in places like Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan.  A president may deny (or repress) his own destructive hostility, projecting it onto “the other.”  Splitting-and-projection readily enables a clear definition of an “enemy” nation, whose population as a whole may have to endure “collateral damage.” As psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has elucidated, in extreme situations (such as the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks), both “leaders” and “followers” may regress to such splitting mechanisms: “we” are all-good, blameless–and they, as one war president claimed, maliciously “hate our freedom.”  Such group-regression, Volkan noted, occurs when the citizenry of a nation abandon mature, inductive rationality and succumb to such dangerously over-simplified, defensive emotional states.1

Here I am focusing on the urge for, and exercise of, “power-over” as a manifestation of compensatory narcissism (a term I prefer, in this essay, to Volkan’s “reparative narcissism”).  As to sadism, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm perceptively described the “dominance-submission” psychology of the authoritarian personality: “the world is composed of people with power and those without it.  The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, and humiliate him.”2 Those individuals who single-mindedly attain such “power-over” may then successfully compensate for the childhood trauma of feeling insecure, under-valued or humiliated.3  Concurrently, the unconscious desire for revenge may be satisfied through displacement onto peoples and nations easily declared to be imminent threats to national security.  (And one should not underestimate the intrinsically pleasurable “power-thrill” involved.)

Case-Study No. 1:  Madeleine Albright

Born in Czechoslovakia the year before British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous, unsuccessful appeasement of Hitler at the Munich Conference, Madeleine Albright (nee Marie Korbelova, 1937-1922) experienced childhood as a refugee.  Her father Josef Korbel held a diplomatic post there, but Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia soon forced the family to flee the country.  The family sought safety in London, only to find themselves under siege by the Luftwaffe’s bombing Blitz (1941).  (In her memoir Prague Winter, Albright passes lightly over the frequent but unpredictable emergency sirens warning of imminent bombs, and alerting Londoners to immediately drop everything and rush for safety down into the Underground Tube.)  In 1948, her father was appointed Czechoslovakian ambassador to Yugoslavia, but with that nation’s takeover by a Communist regime, the family was yet again forced to flee.

Thus, Albright experienced a childhood of bewildering war dangers, constant flights from one safe haven to another, and the inevitable insecurities about vulnerability, abandonment, homelessness.  (Of course, no such feelings are acknowledged in her memoir.)  One traumatic lesson no doubt learned was that power rules the world, and those without it can become victims.  Such a lesson must have also been detected in the decision of her Jewish parents to raise her as a Catholic–a sobering fact that Albright claimed she only first learned when a journalist broke the story in 1997.4 (In her childhood, was she really unaware of the strange absence of contact with any extended family members–who had been ”disappeared” into concentration camps?).

Much later, living as a U.S citizen, and marrying journalist Joseph  Albright–who later divorced her–she eventually, like her father, chose a career in diplomacy, earning a Columbia Ph.D. in international relations under Zbigniew Brzezinski (soon to become National Security Advisor for Democratic President Jimmy Carter).  This connection would pave the way for this ambitious, aggressive woman who, by the time of the first Clinton Administration, was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Previously, under the previous Bush (Sr.) administration, a propaganda-fueled Gulf War (1991) had left Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in ruins, with a destroyed military and hundreds of thousands of casualties.  Even so, Saddam remained in power, and U.S.-backed, draconian UN sanctions were imposed for many years to follow, producing widespread hunger, disease and suffering.  U.S. bombing during that brief war targeted and destroyed water treatment plants and other critical infrastructure, yet the sanctions prohibited the importation of chlorine as well as antibiotics and most foodstuffs.  Such cruel sanctions, as we know, resulted in hundreds of thousands of children’s deaths.5

Sitting as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Security Council (1993-1996), Albright aggressively shaped the Clinton policy: extreme pressure on the other members of the Council to continue the sanctions.  But later, as her tenure at the UN was coming to an end, she inadvertently exposed her authoritarian-sadistic motivations to millions, in her now-infamous TV interview on Sixty Minutes (May 12, 1996).  When interviewer Lesley Stahl, pointing out that a UNICEF Study had recently estimated that some 500,000 Iraqi children were now dead because of these U.S.-backed sanctions, Albright–as viewers saw with astonishment–coldly replied that on balance, it was ”worth it.”6

As is well-known, the draconian sanctions continued.  A few months later, now U.S. Secretary of State, Albright once more displayed her latent, sadistic-narcissistic motivation: “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” (March 26, 1997).7

It is beyond the scope of the present article to examine her refusal, when on the UN Security Council (1994), to respond to UN General Romeo Dallaire’s urgent request for a few thousand peace-keeper troops to stop the genocide in Rwanda.8

As to Serbia’s 1990s involvement in wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, diplomat Albright had little interest in negotiation or humanitarian initiatives. In a seeming obsession with the rise of Hitler at the time she was born, she repeatedly declared that “my mind-set is Munich.”9 The U.S. would not tolerate the expansionist plans allegedly masterminded and directed by Milosevic, president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (i.e., Serbia).  She initially tried to pressure Gen. Colin Powell for immediate U.S. military action, including heavy bombing: extreme demands which he claimed, in his own self-promoting book, almost caused him to have “an aneurysm.”10 Nonetheless, during the later Kosovo conflict (spring 1999), Albright revealed herself once more as an eager warmaker (rather than “diplomat”).  She bullied the 19 member-nations of NATO as junior partners in a 1000-plane daily bombing campaign over Serbia that was prolonged for an absolutely devastating 90 days.11

In her retirement, Albright wrote the usual self-justifying memoirs.  Her unwavering fixation on strength and power–she even wrote proudly that she could leg-press 400 pounds!–was reflected in the very title of one of her books: The Mighty and the Almighty (2006).


  1. Vamik Volkan, M.D., Blind Trust. Pitchstone Press, 2004.
  2. Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom. Henry Holt, 1941.
  3. Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.  FS&G, 1985.  See also:  Anna Freud,The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. International Universities Press (1937), for her explanation of the concept of “identification-with-the-aggressor”.
  4. Michael Dobbs, “Albright’s Family Tragedy Comes to Light.” The Washington Post, February 4, 1997.
  5. John Pilger, “Paying the Price,” Carlton Television documentary, 2000.
  6. CBS News, “Sixty Minutes,” May 12, 1996.  Watch the entire program (YouTube), which includes not only the full interview with Albright but also on-site visits to children’s hospitals in Iraq.
  7. Jon Schwarz, “RIP Madeleine Albright and Her Awful, Awful Career.” The Intercept, March 25, 2022.
  8. Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands With the Devil.  Da Capo Press, 2005; p. 374.
  9. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell.  Basic Books, 2002.
  10. Colin Powell, My American Journey. Ballantine, 2005; p. 576.
  11. Maggie O’Kane, “Rage Unites Battered Town,” The Guardian, April 12, 1999.
Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.