If only Jeanne Kirkpatrick could have stayed around a few more days, she would have felt vindicated by the obituaries and editorials that poured in in the wake of Augusto Pinochet’s death on Sunday. Author of the famous 1979 article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which prompted President Reagan to appoint her as his foreign policy advisor, Kirkpatrick argued that traditional autocrats (her euphemism for right-wing dictatorships) were less harmful, less cruel, and more likely than the left-wing variety to open the door to liberal democracies. It is an argument that, taken to its conclusion, simply tries to quantify how much death and torture is acceptable if it is all done in the name of our ideals. Pinochet’s passing has provided an opportunity to trot this argument out again as a way of giving the Chilean dictator his due.
The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a democratic Eastern Europe out of countries that were, indeed, left-wing dictatorships, would seem to have put Kirkpatrick’s big idea to rest and exposed it for the politically partisan notion that it was to begin with. But reading the encomiums to Pinochet over the last two days, we had to keep rubbing our eyes and pinching ourselves. Could it be that anyone would still try to qualify one brutal dictator as somehow less bad or more justified in his cruelty than another?
The Wall Street Journal offers a perfect example of this strange revisionism and the not-so-subtle form it’s taking. A Journal editorial today began with the contention that “the real story” about Pinochet is “more complicated” than the standard narrative, which only seeks “to emphasize the loss of liberty during the 17 years he ruled the country as a military dictator.” See, if we really want to take stock of Pinochet as a leader, we need to consider that while “he is responsible for the death and torture that occurred on his watch … had Salvador Allende succeeded in turning Chile into another Cuba, many more might have died.”
That’s the first way Pinochet’s legacy is twisted around: by comparing it to a hypothetical Allende regime (a man who was, by the way, democratically elected) or to Castro’s reign. But intellectual honesty would dictate that neither of these two comparisons should mitigate a real look at Pinochet’s crimes. Intellectual honesty, it would seem, is not the goal here.
Having established the “complexity” of Pinochet’s human rights violations, the Journal moves on to its coup de grace (excuse the pun): crediting Pinochet for the free market, Milton Friedman-inspired reforms that, it claims, are responsible for making Chile the envy of South America. The Journal even gives Pinochet credit for securing a democratic Chile, one “that truly belongs to the Chilean people.” This about a man who trampled over democratic institutions, then only reluctantly stepped down from power, while keeping himself in charge of the army and finally appointing himself senator-for-life in a bid for permanent immunity for his sins. “The day they touch one of my men, the rule of law ends,” he warned in 1991, afraid that his minions might be brought up on crimes against humanity.