Teasing Out Policy Insight From a Character Profile

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...The endgame in Libya is likely to turn in large part on the instincts of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and any insight into those instincts would be enormously valuable to policy makers. Journalists have formed their impressions from anecdotes, or from his actions in the past; others have seized on his recent tirades about Al Qaeda and President Obama.

But at least one group has tried to construct a profile based on scientific methods, and its conclusions are the ones most likely to affect American policy. For decades, analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense have compiled psychological assessments of hostile leaders like Colonel Qaddafi, Kim Jong-il of North Korea and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, as well as allies, potential successors and other prominent officials. (Many foreign governments do the same, of course.)

Diplomats, military strategists and even presidents have drawn on those profiles to inform their decisions — in some cases to their benefit, in other cases at a cost....

The method with the longest track record is modeled on clinical case studies, the psychobiographies that therapists create when making a diagnosis, citing influences going back to the sandbox. The first one on record, commissioned in the early 1940s by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the C.I.A., was of Adolf Hitler; in it, the Harvard personality specialist Henry A. Murray speculated freely and luridly about Hitler’s “infinite self-abasement,” “homosexual panic” and Oedipal tendencies....

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