Sunday, June 23, 2019
Why Governments Need Psychoanalysts
Not exactly the kind the fictional character Deanna Troi on Star Trek Next Generation, who counseled commanders on the USS Enterprise, provides, the US government needs counsel.
It suffers from a lack of basic psychoanalytic knowledge.
Sadly, psychoanalysts tend to be much less attractive than Ms. Troi, played by actress Marina Sartis. They invite less desire. They elicit less envy. A hallmark in television, Ms. Troi became one of the first actresses to play leading roles as psychotherapists. Then came The Sopranos, in which a psychoanalytically-oriented psychiatrist treats Tony Soprano. Since then, many television and cinematic shows feature actors playing such roles.
Here in the real world, governments could definitely benefit from even a basic understanding of long-held psychoanalytic concepts.
The immediate, highly volatile situation involving Iran brings several key psychoanalytic ideas to mind.
You can expect the concept of triangulation, for example, to thrust onto the world stage this coming week. Starting tomorrow, Trump intends to apply “maximum” pressure to Iran. He will issue further sanctions, order cyberattacks, and initiate other “punishing” interventions to “further cripple” the Iranian economy.
Trump erred, immensely, when he unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian Nuclear Deal. It indefinitely delayed Iran’s capacity to create nuclear weapons. Like usual, Trump thinks he can negotiate a better deal—despite his failing to do so with North Korea, China, or Russia.
Meanwhile, ordinary Iranians suffer. The inflation rate will soon hit 40 percent, oil revenues will be further reduced, and basic necessities, like food and medicine, will become scarce. Iran’s leaders will feel no pain; the country’s “ordinary” citizens will suffer.
And, that suffering will increase exponentially if we go to war with Iran.
Triangulation occurs when persons organize together around a common enemy. In psychotherapeutic work, you’ll often see this when children become frightened by problems in their parents’ relationship. They often develop anxiety or depression, or eating disorders. They might even display delinquent behavior as an unconscious way to cope. A good example of the wisdom of the unconscious, those parents will typically be distracted by the problems developing in one or more of their children.
In like manner, the Iranians’ unfortunate anti-American attitude, evident in large scale protests featuring citizens chanting Death to America, will soon grow in frequency and intensity.
Ain’t it simple?
Iranian leaders will blame America, causing their citizens to triangulate against the United States.
Increasing sanctions, and taking other punishing measures, will only make matters worse.
Trump also seems to have no understanding of good old fashioned pride. The Iranian people have been feeling the negative effects of the sanctions ever since Trump left the nuclear deal. They feel weakened. They legitimately blame the US, not unfairly.
Trump seeks to negotiate with a nation which metaphorically has a knife at its throat.
Somewhat more complicated are the psychoanalytic concepts of splitting and projective identification. Splitting, along with projective identification, represent human beings’ most primitive ego defense mechanisms. They are normal in infants and toddlers; they become highly pathological when present in adults. These two defense mechanisms, for example, predominate in cases of Borderline Personality Disorder.
In normal development, splitting simplifies the complexity of the world by reducing it into distinct categories of good and bad. The phenomenon of war—one which may well occur between Iran and the US in coming days—always features splitting.
In that terrifying case, the Iranians would become “the enemy.” We would become the “good,” or part of “the allies.” Anyone who’s read anything about the 20th century knows how that ends up. More than 250 million people died in war-related incidents between 1915 and 1950.
Do citizens of the world no longer remember the disaster of war, including immense collateral damage and unpredictable outcomes?
Projective identification is closely related to splitting. It involves projecting all the “bad” elements of one party onto the other party. In the case of the US v. Iran, self-reflection becomes impossible. Any negatives on our part, like leaving the deal with which most of the world accepted, our continued, excessive reliance on petroleum, or the worst income inequality since WWII, vanish. We project all the “bad” into the Iranians, justifying our killing of, potentially, millions of their citizens.
Paralleling our projection processes, the Iranians would do the same. The small resistance to the Islamic government would vanish. Other problems, such as Iran helping terrorist groups, fomenting the war in Yemen, harassing Israel, or provocatively threatening to begin developing their own atomic bombs, would similarly vanish. The complexities within their own country will become reduced to absurd simplicities.
Expect the calls of Death to America to increase in volume and intensity.
One wonders whether the hawkish advisors to Trump, specifically John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, have even a basic understanding of these fundamental psychoanalytic ideas.
Trump certainly does not.
What an awful way to become familiar with triangulation, splitting, and projective identification.
Nonetheless, as of today, it looks like clumsiness on either the Iranian or US side will lead to war. War, in turn, will bring disastrous levels of triangulation, splitting, and projective identification.
What could prevent it?
Dialogue is the best way to address symptoms in children who are unconsciously acting out their parents’ problems. The same applies to relations between nations. They need to talk, and on the quick.
However, the US has no formal diplomatic relations with Iran. Therefore, dialogue will prove difficult. And, if dialogue is to succeed, it will necessarily require conversing with an adversary which feels neither shamefully dominated nor intensely threatened.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP