Does he believe it himself? When President Bashar al-Assad favoured the world with his thoughts on Syria's crisis yesterday, his wooden, twitching performance betrayed exactly what makes a dictator-at-bay both pitiable and repugnant.
For the best part of a year, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have marched against his rule, braving the bullets of thuggish security forces. How did Mr Assad account for the protests? They were all part of an "external conspiracy", he said; a fact that was "clear to everybody" -- or at least to him.
Syria is now under sanctions from the Arab League and the European Union (when those two are united against you, things really have gone wrong) and the economy has been crippled. Mr Assad opined that this was just the moment to "focus on medium and small-scale industry". His government would "create employment opportunities", he promised his audience in Damascus, before adding: "We should also have social justice."
Mr Assad, a doctor by training, might serve as a prime specimen of a specific condition -- let's call it "dictator delusion syndrome" -- suffered by the tiny class of humanity who run authoritarian regimes. The most striking feature of this mental state is its consistency. The themes that ran through Mr Assad's speech have cropped up time and again whenever oppressive rulers have been forced to confront the anger of their peoples.
The first and most familiar refrain is that all the trouble has been got up by outsiders. A dictator is psychologically programmed to believe that he basks in the adoration of his people. If he ever stops clinging to that vital reassurance, then his regime really would be a criminal enterprise dedicated to plunder and self-preservation. So the comfort blanket of universal popularity must remain immovable, and the facts have to be adjusted accordingly.
Thus Colonel Gaddafi watched as hundreds of thousands of Libyans wrested entire cities from his control, while spraying choice obscenities over every available picture of his face, before declaring on television: "My people love me!" With an original flourish, he added that "foreigners", the inevitable cause of the rebellion, had incited Libyans against their leader by the novel method of drugging their cups of Nescafe coffee.
When Robert Mugabe faced the first significant opposition party in Zimbabwe's history, his first thought was to blame its existence on the British. Adding a personal touch, he chose to pin the culpability on Tony Blair. In a remote corner of the Zimbabwean bush, where an ally had won an obscure by-election, Mr Mugabe duly declared: "We have defeated Blair!"
Even the leader of a theocratic regime, who believes himself to carry a divine right to rule, resorts to the old comforting refrain. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, watched a million people march in Tehran against a rigged election in 2009, before declaring that "foreign enemies" were behind everything.
If outsiders are the cause of all the trouble, it must follow that their aims go wider than the downfall of a particular leader. They must be plotting against the country itself. So the dictator-at-bay eases himself into the next source of reassurance: his interests and those of the nation must be one and the same. In fact, the distinction between country and leader is non-existent: he is the nation and the nation is him.
So Mr Assad described the turmoil of the last year as a "challenge against Syria". The targets were the "people of Syria" and, in the face of this onslaught, "we are all one". As he stood before his sycophantic audience, at once strutting, monotone and hollow-eyed, Mr Assad showed that inconvenient thoughts had been banished from his mind. He will never entertain the unwelcome truth that the challenge is against him personally, and the cause of Syria's bloodshed is a struggle between the Assad clan and most of their country.
Did he genuinely believe the farrago of delusion and double-think that passed for his analysis of Syria's crisis? The answer is that he must do, for this is part of the dictator mindset and the alternative -- dealing in hard reality -- would amount to surrender and shame.
All of us occasionally console ourselves with harmless thoughts that may have little bearing on the real world. The delusions of dictators are, however, intensely harmful. Because Mr Assad believes that all the protests against his rule are the work of malevolent foreign powers, it follows that he considers any Syrian taking part in the demonstrations to be a traitor.
And those who march against him deserve the harshest treatment. The methods that would be used to combat an invasion could justly be used against this threat from within.
Hence the bloodcurdling atrocities perpetrated by Mr Assad's security forces. The ripples of delusion spread outwards from the leader: if he believes he is fighting a gang of hired traitors, so will many of those who serve him. The Syrian intelligence agents who tortured small boys will convince themselves that this was necessary punishment for treachery.
Deep down, Mr Assad must believe that Syrians are helpless playthings in the hands of foreigners; people of such low esteem that they can be bought, brainwashed and turned against their own country. His brand of delusion is peculiarly demeaning to his people. While killing Syrians in order to stay in power, he also insults their intelligence. In so doing, Mr Assad makes himself an object not merely of hatred but of contempt. (© Daily Telegraph, London)