The Psychology of Dictatorship

Can psychology deliver us from the Hitlers of the world?

Displacement of Aggression and US Foreign Policy

How the Case of Saudi Arabia Demonstrates Limits to Displacement Benefits

Displacement of aggression is a well known concept in psychology. Freud explored displacement extensively, and modern experimental researchers have demostrated the power of displaced aggression  in laboratory conditions. But perhaps the best context for considering the true characteristics of diplacement of aggression is in foreign policy and international relations. The case of Saudi Arabia is interesting, because it also demonstrates the limits of how displacement of aggression can be used in foreign policy.

In 1980 I was participating in a United Nations project to help Afghan refugees in Baluchestan; following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, millions of Afghans had poured south into Iran and Pakistan. At the same time, in the same area there were large numbers of Islamic extremists moving up north to fight the Soviets. These extremists included Osama bin Laden and many other Saudis (as well as Afghans who would later form the Taliban government in Afghanistan).

The dictatorial regime of Saudi Arabia, supported by the US, directed disgruntled Saudis to go and fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. This served as a 'safety valve', easing the pressure inside Saudi Arabia. Eventually tens of thousands of extremists went from Saudi Arabia to fight in Afghanistan - the Saudi regime was using a classic displacement tactic.

Of course, the United States ended up fighting the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden went on to plan and help bring about the tragedy of 9/11. Conseqeuntly, a 'displacement tactic' that helped to keep the Saudi dictatorship in place proved to be very damaging to long term US interests.

But there is a real danger that the same scenario is being repeated, this time in Syria.

The Saudi dictatorship is once again using displacement tactics, encouraging disgruntled young Saudi men to go abroad and 'fight the enemy', this time in Syria. There is a build up of Islamic extremists in Syria, funded and armed by the Saudi regime. After the collapse of the terrible Assad dictatorship, there is a real danger that Syria, or at least parts of it, will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who have a fanatical hatred for the United States.

Is history being repeated?  Will the United States end up fighting Islamic extremists who Saudi Arabia encourages to go abroad and fight, this time in Syria? 

Fathali M. Moghaddam, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the director of the Conflict Resolution Program, Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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