The List

Profiles in Phobia

The irrational fears that keep the world's most powerful leaders up at night.


Aerophobia (fear of flying)

Reason for fear: This week, the North Korean leader traveled to China for meetings with Chinese leaders. As he typically does, Kim made the trip by train. The Dear Leader almost never flies, reportedly because of an intense fear of flying triggered by a 1976 helicopter crash in which he was seriously injured. The reclusive and paranoid Kim doesn't get too many opportunities for overseas travel anyway, but he has managed to travel as far as Moscow -- 5,800 miles away -- via his personal rail car. His armored train convoy, reportedly up to 90 carriages long, is typically only used to shepherd him between his secret underground compounds.

Claustrophobia (Fear of enclosed spaces) 
Reason for fear: The Libyan leader is reportedly extremely uncomfortable in confined spaces and prefers staying outdoors in Bedouin-style tents rather than hotels when he travels. This preference has flummoxed protocol offices the world over, notably in Paris, where Qaddafi pitched his tent for a week in 2007. While attending the 2009 U.N. General Assembly meeting, Qaddafi tried without success to set up his tent at three different locations in the New York area, including land owned by Donald Trump. Qaddafi was eventually forced to rough it at the Libyan Embassy.

Cynophobia (Fear of dogs) 
Reason for fear: As a child, Chancellor Merkel was bitten by a dog, instilling her deep fear of canines. Merkel's fear is well known, and perhaps worryingly for Germans has reportedly been used against her by foreign leaders. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a master of psychological diplomacy, has repeatedly attempted to take advantage of Merkel's fear. In 2006, the then-president perplexed German diplomats by presenting the chancellor with a small dog as a gift and made a habit of having his black Labrador, Koni, sit in on their meetings. Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has put a stop to the practice.

Equinophobia (Fear of horses)  
Reason for fear: Bush's Western attire and penchant for clearing brush on his Texas ranch helped him cultivate a Reaganesque cowboy image. But Dubya's Texas lifestyle didn't extend to horseback riding. In his memoirs, former Mexican President Vicente Fox recalls offering Bush a ride on his beloved horse Dos de Julio and being surprised when Bush "demurred, backing away from the big palomino." Fox suspected Bush was reluctant to climb "aboard an animal that ... doesn't necessarily stop when you put on the brakes," and later labeled the U.S. president no more than a "windshield cowboy."

Reason for fear: Astrological paranoia has a long history among Burma's leaders. Former military dictator Ne Win once replaced the country's 100-kyat note with a 90-kyat note because it was a luckier number. But current leader Than Shwe took the practice to a new level in 2006 when he moved the country's capital from Burma's largest city, Yangon, formerly Rangoon, to the jungle backwater of Naypyidaw before running water or electricity were even installed because his chief astrologer reportedly told him that his star was in decline and his government would fall if he did not move.

ITAR-TASS/Igor Kolomeytsev/Getty Images; Franco Origlia/Getty Images; AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images; PAUL J.RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images; Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The List

The Biggest Oil Spills in History

The growing slick of crude menacing the Louisiana coast is big trouble, but the world has seen much, much worse.

 Update: According to new estimates released on Aug. 2, 2010, more than 172 gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico between April and July 15. This makes it the largest accidental spill of all time, though still likely smaller than the intentionally-caused Gulf War spill. 

 If current estimates for the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico are correct, the massive spill could eventually dwarf that of Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 -- previously the largest in U.S. history -- by as much as three times. At a rate of 5,000 barrels a day, for an estimated 90 days, well over 20 million gallons of crude could be pumped out onto the Louisiana coastline. Even then, it might only crack the top 15 largest oil spills in world history. Here are the top five.


Location: Persian Gulf

Date: Jan. 21, 1991

Amount: Between 160 million and 420 million gallons

How it happened: As Iraqi forces withdrew from their position in Kuwait, they sabotaged hundreds of wells, oil terminals, and tankers. All told, a minimum of 4 million barrels were poured into the Persian Gulf. Within a couple of years however, experts happily reported that the biggest oil spill in history had a surprisingly small environmental impact.


Location: Gulf of Mexico

Date: June 3, 1979 - March 23, 1980

Amount: 138 million gallons

How it happened: This exploratory oil well suffered a catastrophic blowout (whereby pressure causes the well to explode), caught fire, and caused the drilling platform to collapse. For months, 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil gushed into the ocean every day.


Location: Trinidad and Tobago

Date: July 19, 1979

Amount: 90 million gallons

How it happened: Two fully loaded oil carriers, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, collided 10 miles off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago during a tropical rainstorm. Both ships caught fire and began leaking their contents in what would become the largest tanker-based spill ever recorded.


Location: Persian Gulf

Date: February 4, 1983 - September 18, 1983

Amount: 80 million gallons

How it happened: During the height of the Iran-Iraq War, an oil tanker hit the Nowruz Field Platform in the gulf and knocked it onto a 45 degree angle, damaging the well underneath. The resulting leak of 1,500 barrels a day could not be capped for months because the platform was under constant attack by Iraqi planes.


Location: Off the coast of Angola

Date: May 28, 1991

Amount: 80 million gallons

The ABT Summer, a tanker holding 260,000 tons of crude, suffered an explosion 900 miles off the coast of Angola. It burned for three days before sinking and was never recovered. Luckily, high seas dispersed the oil and dulled its potential environmental impact.