Bush and the Psychology of Incompetent Decisions
By John P. Briggs, MD, and J.P. Briggs II, PhD
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributors
Thursday 18 January 2007
President George W. Bush prides himself on "making tough decisions." But many are sensing something seriously troubling, even psychologically unbalanced, about the president as a decision-maker. They are right.
Because of a psychological dynamic swirling around deeply hidden feelings of inadequacy, the president has been driven to make increasingly incompetent and risky decisions. This dynamic makes the psychological stakes for him now unimaginably high. The words "success" and "failure" have seized his rhetoric like metaphors for his psyche's survival.
The president's swirling dynamic lies "hidden in plain sight" in his personal history. From the time he was a boy until his religious awakening in his early 40s, Bush had every reason to feel he was a failure. His continued, almost obsessive, attempts through the years to emulate his father, obtain his approval, and escape from his influence are extensively recorded.
His biography is peppered with remarks and behavior that allude to this inner struggle. In an exuberant moment during his second campaign for Texas governor, Bush told a reporter, "It's hard to believe, but ... I don't have time to worry about being George Bush's son. Maybe it's a result of being confident. I'm not sure how the psychoanalysts will analyze it, but I'm not worried about it. I'm really not. I'm a free guy."
A psychoanalyst would note that he is revealing here that he has been worrying about being his father's son quite a lot.
Resentment naturally contaminated Bush's efforts to prove himself to his father and receive his father's approval. The contradictory mix showed up in his compulsion to re-fight his father's war against Iraq, but this time winning the duel some thought his father failed to win with Saddam. He could at once emulate his father, show his contempt for him, and redeem him. But beneath this son-father struggle lies a far more significant issue for Bush - a question about his own competence, adequacy and autonomy as a human being.
We have seen this inner question surface repeatedly, and we have largely conspired with him to deny it.
- On September 11, 2001, we saw (and suppressed) the image of him sitting stunned for seven minutes in a crowd of school children after learning that the second plane had hit the Twin Towers, and then the lack of image of him when he vanished from public view for the rest of the day. Instead, we bought the cover-up image, three days after the attack, of the strong leader, grabbing the bullhorn in New York City and issuing bellicose statements.
- In 2004, we saw and denied the insecurity displayed when the president refused to face the 9/11 Commission alone and needed Vice President Cheney to go with him.
- In 2003, we saw and suppressed the dark side of the "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier landing, in which a man who had ducked out on his generation's war and dribbled away his service in the Texas Air National Guard dressed up like Top Gun and pretended that he was a combat pilot like his father.
- Asked by a reporter if he would accept responsibility for any mistakes, Bush answered, "I hope I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't - you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not quick - as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one." What we heard, and yet didn't hear, was a confession of his feelings of inadequacy and an arrogant denial those feelings all at once.
- In early 2006, when his father moved behind the scenes to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the son responded, "I'm the decider and I decide what's best" - and when he clenched his fist at a question about his father's influence, proclaiming, "I'm the Commander in Chief" - we glimpsed what was going on.
To cover up and defend himself against his feelings of his inadequacy and incompetence, Bush developed a number of psychological defenses. In his school years he played the clown. (His ability to joke about his verbal slip-ups is an endearing adult application of this defense to public life.) His heavy drinking was a classic way to anesthetize feelings of inadequacy. Indeed, drinking typically makes the alcoholic grandiose, which has led some commentators to argue that Bush has the "dry drunk" syndrome, where the individual has stopped drinking but retains the brittle psychology of the alcoholic. Other defenses now play especially powerful roles to protect the president against his internal feelings of insufficiency.
The Christian Defense
Bush has carefully let it be known that he believes the decisions he makes in office are directed by God. His famous claim to make decisions by "gut" ("I'm a gut player," he told Bob Woodward) equates with his claim of the spiritual inspiration he receives through prayer, his own and the prayers of others. Whatever else it is, this equation of his own choices with God's will has unparalleled advantages. It creates the perfect defense against any doubts he or anyone else might have that he can't make the right decision. The need to engage in analysis and explore alternatives to get there comes off the table. Instead, he has his gut; he has his God.
Being "born again" also allows the president to present himself as having relegated to the past all those previously inadequate behaviors of his younger days: the poor academic performance, the drinking, the failed businesses. He's a new man, no longer incompetent but now supremely competent as a result of his faith.
When Woodward asked Bush if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq, he replied, "He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to." How wonderfully that appeal must seem to resolve the internal conflict about adequacy we have described above.
The Bully Defense
Bush's mother, Barbara (sarcastic, mean, disciplinarian, always with an acid-tongued retort), is probably the model for another major defense Bush deploys to defend himself against feelings of inadequacy. A friend at the time described her as "sort of the leader bully."
That bullies are insecure people is well known and fairly obvious. A bully covers insecurity with bluster and intimidation so that others won't find an opening to see how weak he feels.
Much of the world outside the US considers Bush a bully. "You're either with us or against us" is a bully's threat that anyone can recognize. The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes is a bully's doctrine.
For his intimates and those closer to home, Bush appears to be what is called an emotional bully. An emotional bully gains control using sarcasm, teasing, mocking, name calling, threatening, ignoring, lying, or angering the other and forcing him to back down. Bush administration insider accounts describe this sort of behavior from the president. He's well known for his dismissive remarks. His penchant for giving nicknames to everyone has its dark, bully's side. Naming people is a way to control them.
In report by Gail Sheehy in 2000, recalled recently by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, we get a glimpse of how Bush's pervasive fear of failure (his absolute refusal to consider "failure as an option") and his bully defense go together. Sheehy interviewed friends from his teenage years and college years. In basketball or tennis games he would insist points be played over because he wasn't ready; he would force opponents who had beaten him to continue playing until he beat them. At Yale he would interrupt his fellow students' studying for exams (helping them fail) to compete in a popular board game, "The Game of Global Domination," at which he was the player noted for taking the most risks, being the most aggressive.
It's likely that speculations about Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice functioning as Bush's puppet-masters are 180 (or at least 160) degrees off. Bush is the president; he gets his way, and they know it. Chances are they have learned to channel his "gut" and give him policy advice that matches it. They may even imagine they are steering him, not clear about the ways that he has bullied them, elicited in them "The Stockholm Syndrome," in which hostages come to identify with and even defend the very person who is threatening them. This is the same dynamic evident in the behavior of battered spouses and members of gangs.
Ron Suskind described the small group around the president: "A disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness - a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners."
Biographical reports tell us that Bush's parents taught him to keep his inner feelings to himself. As psychiatrist Justin A. Frank noted in Bush on the Couch, this results in a "self-protective indifference to the pain of others." This is another aspect of his bully defense, projecting his inner pain onto others. Bush's remarkable drive for the power to torture terrorist suspects and his reported glorying in Texas executions during his terms as governor testify to his lack of compassion, despite his recent statement of qualms about seeing Saddam Hussein drop through the trap.
The Man of Splits and Oppositions
Being in the world, for all of us, involves the challenge to somehow integrate the opposites of our nature and to select our way through the many opposing choices presented us in life. The bully polarizes the natural ambivalence (the internal opposition) anyone feels about whether he is strong or weak, safe or vulnerable. A person who needs to feel invulnerable and completely adequate all the time, or who always feels helpless and inadequate, has polarized these emotions and leads a deformed life. The degree of internal polarization in President Bush appears to be serious - and widespread. Commentators have made lists of the president's polarities: the proclaimed uniter who is a relentless divider, the habit of "saying one thing and doing another," as Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords put it. The list is long and growing. It should include the oppositions that show up in his famous Bushisms, such as:
There is no doubt in my mind that we should allow the world's worst leaders to hold America hostage, to threaten our peace, to threaten our friends and allies with the world's worst weapons.
They [the terrorists] never stop thinking of ways to harm our country and our people - and neither do we.
To a psychiatrist, these are not mere malapropisms and mistakes in speech. They suggest ambivalence oscillating violently between poles. They suggest a desperate uncertainty about everything that the president reflexively seeks to hide by taking absolutist, rigid positions about "victory," "success," "mission accomplished," "stay the course," "compassion," "tax cuts," "no child left behind," and a host of other issues.
The Presidential Defense
Once Bush took the bullhorn at ground zero, he found perhaps the ultimate defense for his secret fears of inadequacy. As he told Bob Woodward, in Bush at War, "I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." As commander in chief, as a war president, he could assemble his other psychological defenses around him. He could split the world into good and evil and the country would follow. His internal oppositions could be projected without much resistance from the populace or his adversaries. He could be the gut-led, divinely inspired "Decider," to save the country. He could project own internal fears of being "discovered as a fraud" into a threat "out there" waiting to happen. He could surround himself with loyalists whom he could emotionally bully, creating a new family that would admire him and that he could control. Meanwhile the ambiguities of political decisions that can always be rationalized offer a safe haven. Until history judges me (and that's a long way off, maybe never) I can't be definitively seen as incompetent.
But as much as the presidency is a perfect defense for disguising incompetence, it's also the perfect trap. It accelerates the positive feedback loop that was set in motion when he "changed his heart" around age 40 (committing himself to God) and presumably put his failures, and his feelings of failure behind him.
In recent weeks, anyone following the news must have intuitively sensed from watching and hearing the president that he would reject the Iraq Study Group's report, co-authored by a person he must have felt was the emissary of his father come to tell him that he had failed again. He chose escalation, the one solution most knowledgeable people agree cannot succeed, in order to keep alive the fiction that success still lies in the future.
The dynamic is becoming obvious to almost everybody.
But how much is Bush aware of this psychological dynamic and of the secret he's keeping? Not aware enough. That's the problem. Psychotherapists use the term "unconscious," but it isn't quite an accurate descriptor. We are aware of feelings, sensations and scripts that occur when one of our unseen psychic mechanisms is triggered. So, when an interviewer asked about the generals who demanded Rumsfeld be removed, and the president knew his father had been working behind the scenes to replace Rumsfeld, the question would not have triggered the conscious thought: there goes dad again trying to make me feel incompetent. Instead, the president may have felt a hollow sensation or a flush of anger, an urge to form a clownish grin to cover his watery feelings, and a script that would come out of his mouth as "I'm the decider." Beneath that would be the inadequacy and cover-up dynamic outlined here.
A president's psychology and his inner secrets are his or her own business, except in one important area. That is area covered by the question, "Does the psychology of this individual interfere with his or her ability to make sound decisions in the best interest of the nation?" Recent history has certainly been witness to presidents with psychodynamics that have damaged their historical legacies. Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon come to mind. But in neither case was the very ability to make sound decisions compromised to the extent we believe it is with this president.
A Failed Process
Many accounts of the president suggest that his decision-making process is a failed one; in an important sense, it is no process at all.
Ambivalent feelings are normal at certain stages of decision-making, and the ability to tolerate ambivalence has been shown to be the hallmark of creative thinkers. The inability to tolerate uncertainty because you think that may imply incapacity brings decision-making to an end.
Thus, instead of focusing on the process needed to arrive at a decision, Bush marshals his defenses in order not to feel incompetent. That doesn't leave much room for exploring the alternatives required of competent decision-making. Not interested in discussion or detail (where the devil often lies), he seeks something minimal, just enough so he can let the decision come to him; it's his "gut" (read "God") that will provide the answer. But these gut feelings are the very feelings associated with his deep sense of inadequacy and his defenses against those feelings. So while he brags that he makes the "tough decisions," psychologically, he's defending himself against the very feelings of uncertainty that are the necessary concomitant to making tough decisions. His tough decision-making is a sham.
In the recent maneuvering toward the "new strategy" in Iraq, we have witnessed a great pretense of normal decision-making. But the president clearly made up his mind almost as soon as the "surge" alternative appeared, and apparently moved to cow others, including his new secretary of defense Robert Gates (his father's man) in the process. "Success" is the only alternative for him. "Failure" and disintegration of Iraq is unthinkable because it would be synonymous with his own internal disintegration.
As his decisions go awry, he exudes a troubling, uncanny aura of certitude (though some find it reassuring). He seems to expect to feel despised and alone (and probably has always felt that), as he has always secretly expected to fail. That expectation of failure leads to sloppy, risky, incompetent decisions, which in turn compel him to swerve from his fears of incompetence.
At this point, the president seems to have entered a place in his psyche where he is discounting all external criticism and unpopularity, and fixing stubbornly on his illusion of vindication, because he's still "The Decider," who can just keep deciding until he gets to success. It's hard not to feel something heroic in this position - but it's a recipe for bad, if not catastrophic, decisions.
Psychologically, President Bush has received support for so long because many have thought of him as "one of us." Most of us feel inadequate in some way, and watching him we can feel his inadequacies and sense his uncertainties, so we admire him for "pulling it off." His model tells us, "If you act like you're confident and competent, then you are." We are the culture that values the power of positive thinking and seeks assertiveness training. We believe that the right attitude can sometimes be more important than brains or hard work. He's bullied us, too. We don't dare to really confront the scale of his incompetent behavior, because then we would have to face what it means to have such an incompetent and psychologically disabled decision-maker as our president. It raises everyone's uncertainty. And that is, in fact, happening now.