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Bush and the Psychology of Incompetent Decisions By John P. Briggs, MD,

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

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. ----------

John P. Briggs, MD, is retired from over 40 years of private practice in
psychotherapy in Westchester County, New York. He was on the faculty in
psychiatry at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City
for 23 years and was a long-time member of the American Academy of
Psychoanalysis. He trained at the William Alanson White Institute in New
York. J.P. Briggs II, PhD, is a Distinguished CSU professor at Western
Connecticut State University and is the senior editor of the
intellectual journal The Connecticut Review. He is author and co-author
of books on creativity and chaos, including Fire in the Crucible (St.
Martin's Press); Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos (Simon and Schuster);
and Seven Life Lessons of Chaos (HarperCollins), among others. He is
currently at work with Philadelphia psychologist John Amoroso on a book
about the power of ambivalence in the creative process.
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