03/07/2011 05:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gaddafi's Mind: a Political Psychology Perspective

Does Colonel Gaddafi really mean what he says? How delusional is he? Is his claim that Al Qaeda stands behind the uprising against him in Libya a calculated remark, in an effort to make the West reconsider its "treacherous behavior"? Or does he indeed firmly believe that his people are against him?

What's confusing is that some of Gaddafi's statements seem quite calculated for someone who otherwise appears to be delusional. For instance: "If Western oil companies choose to leave, they will be replaced by Indian and Chinese companies." This statement appears to be an ultimatum in response to pressure coming from the West.

Nonetheless, as the Libyan leader continued to deny the unfolding revolution against his rule, both the ABC network and the BBC in the UK ran a thought-provoking special on Colonel Gadaffi's interpretation of the situation. They interviewed Dr. Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who worked for the CIA on profiling world leaders for more than 20 years. He now teaches political psychology at the George Washington University in Washington DC, where I had the privilege of taking a course with him.

Gaddafi's statements are not a mere propaganda attempt and he honestly believes in what he is saying. "Gaddafi finds it inconceivable that his beloved people could be rising up against him," Dr. Post explains. This is why he seeks explanations in the outside forces, be it the United States putting hallucinogenic drugs in Nescafe of his people, or Al Qaeda intervening in some other way. Gaddafi has ruled the country for 42 years, so when he says "This is my Libya" he means that literally. For Gaddafi, anyone who knows just how much he has done for his country cannot possibly hold anything against him.

The fact that Gaddafi equates Libya with himself, might explain why he keeps saying that "Libyan dignity is under attack." His dignity is that of Libya's. The following words from Gaddafi's speech have little to do with reality: "I led a historic revolution that brought honor to the Libyans. Libya will be leading the whole world - Africa, Asia and Latin America. Nobody can stop this historic march."

Political psychology looks into Gaddafi's biography and psychological reactions to his environment for clues about his present behavior. Gaddafi was a Bedouin, born in a tent in the desert near Sirt; he came to the city as a very intelligent young man with little education. He was often teased and treated with contempt, Dr. Post explains, which made him extra sensitive for not being part of the establishment, and therefore fuelled his leadership of the revolution.

Now, you might wonder, why is this interpretation of Gaddafi's behavior relevant? Such worldview of Gaddafi's could make him ready to fight his own people until the last drop of blood. Such psychological profile also reveals that Gaddafi is unlikely to commit suicide, since his paranoia affirms his belief that he is not the one to blame for the present situation; on the contrary, the fault lies with everyone else but him.

We could ask the same question about Mubarak: was he seriously delusional or just propagandistic, when he had announced in his initial speech that he was refusing to step down? What Gaddafi shares with Mubarak is his old age. Leaders tend to lose their ability to respond creatively to new challenges as they grow older; at the same time they feel a sense of urgency to complete their goals. Faced with growing unemployment, booming youth population and accusations of corruption, the hallmark of Mubarak's domestic and foreign policy- stability- was no longer a virtue. Stability turned into stagnation.

Another case in point is the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic [no relation to the author of this article], whom Gaddafi controversially supported. Milosevic successfully projected the image of a zealous nationalist for the sake of political gains. However, he could not care less about the ideology he purportedly advocated.

Dr. Post profiled President Milosevic as well, describing him as "a consummate survivor, [...] driven for the most part to preserve and magnify his power, rather than by ideology and financial gain." Through successful media manipulation, he managed to profile himself as the Serbian national hero, defying the Western powers that conspired against him and his country. At the same time he displayed a striking lack of concern for the suffering of not only other nationalities in the region, but for his own countrymen as well.

Perhaps the best example of Milosevic's pragmatism, concealed under his nationalist ideology was the fact that he offered to finance the American Cultural Center in Belgrade, at the time when the State Department could not secure the funds to do so. American Cultural Center used to be a US government-sponsored outreach effort to the Serbian public, as part of the US mission to the country. President Milosevic, a strident opponent to what he termed as "Western imperialism" would be the last person you'd expect to help fund such an effort. However, one could not read about this deal in the media, this information surfaced only years later, thanks to Professor John Brown, a former foreign service officer, who was kind enough to reveal it.

What I repeatedly notice in these circumstances is just how little us, the ordinary readers, who are not privy to insiders' information, are actually capable of knowing. We rely on analyses by columnists we trust and on vague statements from politicians, parroted at press conferences. Yet, what is really taking place is perhaps well beyond the reach of the speculations we so confidently indulge in.