The recent death of Colin Powell, who at first was an advocate of the Iraq war -perhaps one of the most damaging foreign policy decisions by a U.S. administration- leads us to examine certain factors behind it. Politics and greed aside, this policy becomes less of a puzzle if one applies some principles of social psychology, and returns to the classic literature.
In 1895, Gustave Le Bon, a French social psychologist, published “La psychologie des foules,” a seminal book on crowd psychology that became a classic in its genre and a basic source for Sigmund Freud when he dealt with this subject. Pertinent to this day, Le Bon´s ideas laid the groundwork for hypotheses by later authors to explain tragic historical events such as the role of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Although Le Bon wrote mainly about the psychology of crowds, his thoughts can also be applied to populations. Though different, both share some common characteristics. Crowds are transitory and tend to gather because they are homogeneous in their beliefs about specific subjects or events. Populations are groups of people with different ways of thinking, living in a place geographically defined but who, similar to crowds, can be swayed by mass media or by a leader.
In his analysis of Le Bon´s work, Sigmund Freud wrote, “A crowd is trusting and easily influenced; it is non-critical. The concept of improbability doesn´t exist…Whoever wants to influence it doesn´t need to present logical arguments. It is only necessary to paint the most alluring images, to exaggerate and to repeat the same concept several times.”
According to Le Bon, opposite ideas can coexist and be tolerated insofar as their logical contradictions do not generate a conflict. This may explain why the actions against Osama Ben Laden in Afghanistan were essentially abandoned when there was a serious chance of capturing him, and how a war against Iraq was started without serious opposition in the U.S.
“Crowds are subject to the magical power of words, which can provoke the most serious storms in the soul of its members, or can contribute to calming them,” wrote Le Bon. In this regard, what greater insult can be used against a country than to call it part of an “axis of evil”?
As is now widely known, the Iraqi war was conducted under false premises, something that became increasingly evident with time. As Le Bon pointed out, “Crowds are never thirsty for truth. They demand illusions, to which they are unable to renounce. Irreality prevails over reality, irreality acting almost as strongly as reality. The visible tendency of the crowd is not to differentiate between them.”
The Bush administration used with great effectiveness the concept of the imperative to eliminate a tyrant and bring democracy to Iraq. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi despot, was eliminated. But Iraq is still in chaos, laying bare to the world the evil of intervention. And Colin Powell ended up regretting his role in the war.
Both crowds and populations are subject to the influence of their leaders´ ideas. Through actions and words, a judicious leader can bring peace to a country, and when that country is the world’s most powerful, to the rest of the world. A misguided leader’s most devastating legacy can -and did- result in a terrible war.