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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Washington Post's praise for Augusto Pinochet

(Updated below - Update II)

The Editorial Page of The Washington Post today lavishly praised right-wing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The Editorial begins with the cursory (really almost bored and resentful) acknowledgement that "for some [Pinochet] was the epitome of an evil dictator." Why would the dreaded, unnamed "some" shriek that Pinochet was an "evil dictator"? No good reason; only this:

Mr. Pinochet was brutal: More than 3,000 people were killed by his government and tens of thousands tortured, mostly in his first three years. Thousands of others spent years in exile.

The Post even belittles the contempt expressed for Pinochet by claiming that it is due less to his murder and torture of political opponents -- that can't possibly be the real reason -- and is driven instead by the fact that "he helped to overthrow, with U.S. support, an elected president considered saintly by the international left: socialist Salvador Allende, whose responsibility for creating the conditions for the 1973 coup is usually overlooked."

So, with the Rush Limbaugh/National Review straw man in place (i.e., Pinochet is only hated in "some" circles because he was pro-U.S. and overthrew a darling of the socialist-anti-American-internationalist-left), the Post builds its case that Pinochet is, on balance, an admirable figure despite his bad points (murder, terrorism, torture): "It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America."

To the Post, Pinochet's "excesses" are mitigated, perhaps even outweighed, by his noble embrace of capitalism (via which he enriched himself with hundreds of millions of dollars):

Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle -- and that not even Allende's socialist successors have dared reverse.

The Post Editorial, appropriately enough, concludes with a reverent embrace of Jeane Kirkpatrick's signature belief "that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies." Concludes The Post: "[Kirkpatrick], too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right."

It is hard to overstate just how radical and extraordinary it is -- though also unsurprising and revealing -- for the Post, particularly in our current political climate, to expressly embrace Augusto Pinochet and to endorse Kirkpatrick's seminal pro-dictatorship article, titled "Dictatorship and Double Standards," which was published in Commentary in November, 1979 (the headline of the Post's Editorial tracks Kirkpatrick's title). Kirkpatrick's article is now proudly displayed on the website of the American Enterprise Institute, where it belongs.

The crux of Kirkpatrick's argument was a defense of American support for right-wing dictatorships (the euphemism she used was "traditional autocrats"), including those which employ "martial law" to imprison and even torture their political opponents.* Critically, Kirkpatrick defended such dictatorships not only on the ground that supporting them promotes U.S. interests, but also on the ground that such dictatorships are more benign than left-wing dictatorships ("revolutionary autocrats") and, beyond that, are even justified in their human rights abuses given the nature of the opposition they face.

In defending the regimes of the Iranian Shah and the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza -- again, defending not only U.S. support for them, but defending the dictatorships themselves -- this is what Kirkpatrick wrote:

Both did tolerate limited apposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties, but both were also confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution. Both rulers, therefore, sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged, torture their opponents. Both relied for public order on police forces whose personnel were said to be too harsh, too arbitrary, and too powerful.

The word "therefore" in that passage is amazing. It signifies Kirkpatrick's belief that these dictators' reliance upon martial law, "harsh" and "arbitrary" personal police forces, and even torture were understandable, if not outright justifiable. After all, the opposition the dictators faced was "violent" and was seeking "social and political revolution." Under the circumstances, can't we all appreciate the need for some hard-nosed, "extra-legal" tactics where rulers get their hands dirty in order to preserve order?

Western precepts of due process and revulsion towards torture are nice, esoteric luxuries and all, but when faced with revolutionary savages bent on radical change, the implication of Kirkpatrick's argument is that one simply can't afford to abide by those nicities (hence the "therefore"). A little -- or even a lot of -- torture and arbitrary imprisonment in order to preserve security and crush the evil ones might be just what is needed.

That is also a pure and complete summary of the current mindset of the Bush administration and its followers and enablers (including The Washington Post Editorial page) with regard to the administration's lawbreaking and its worst excesses.

Objections to the Bush administration's human rights abuses, total disregard for basic precepts of due process, and its reliance on "coercive interrogation" methods are routinely dismissed away by pointing to -- just as Kirkpatrick did -- the extreme and savage character of the Enemy, which renders such measures not only justifiable but even necessary. As long as the government continues to defend the free market and only uses such methods against those who really deserve it, that's something we can all tolerate, even appreciate.

One can draw a short and straight line from Kirkpatrick's defense of right-wing dictatorships to the Bush administration's ongoing abuses.* As Matt Yglesias wrote yesterday in response to various right-wing commentators exhibiting a bizarre reluctance to criticize Pinochet:

I think this is the context in which you have to understand American conservatism's generally blasé attitude toward the Bush administration's more modest ventures into the fields of arbitrary detention, corruption, and torture. Years of apologizing for the deployment of such tactics by America's proxies abroad naturally desensitizes the political culture to the re-importation of these methods to the center.

The Washington Post's editorial enabling of most (though admittedly not all) of the Bush administration's excesses over the past five years is clearly grounded in the Kirkpatrickian view that sometimes such measures are necessary to preserve order and security, and can never been seen as "pure evil" as long as they are imposed by a government committed to the free market.

What is so striking is that, in the aftermath of 9/11, that justifying mindset, previously used to defend third-world dictatorships, was so seamlessly imported into the domestic policies of the United States. This is how Kirkpatrick defined the "traditional autocracies" which she defended:

Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations.

Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

Objectively speaking, Kirkpatrick's description of the virtues of "traditional autocracy" sound quite similar to the vision which Bush followers and certain elite enablers (e.g. Fred Hiatt and similar Beltway pundits) have of the Ideal America today.

Despite the radical transformation of our national character over the last five years, The Washington Post continues to be able to earn money and enjoy the rewards of the free market. We continue to "worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos." And Bush officials "leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few."

Just as Kirkpatrick argued in 1979 -- and as the Post implicitly endorsed today -- we can all live with some torture and arbitrary arrests and detentions. And we must always keep in mind that things could always be worse -- at least the Bush administration (like Pinochet) is keeping taxes low and corporate profits high. So our view of its human rights abuses (like our view of Pinochet's) should be tempered by our appreciation for its rejection of socialism.

Thus, argues the Post (following along with the illustrious Jonah Goldberg, among others), let's set torture and lawbreaking and indefinite detention to the side. At least George Bush (and Pincochet) aren't Fidel Castro. That this has become the Post's measuring stick for our own government explains much about the last five years in this country.

UPDATE: The homage paid by Fred Hiatt to Augusto Pinochet would likely baffle Ariel Dorfman, whose New York Times Op-Ed today (h/t Kovie) examines the lingering and tragic effects on Chile of Pinochet's despotism. Hiatt's admiration for Pinochet would also likely be baffling to what Dorfman describes as the "thousands upon thousands of Chileans who spontaneously poured into the streets here to celebrate the news of his extinction."

UPDATE II: Even Paul Miregnoff and David Frum -- let's say that again: even Paul Mirengoff and David Frum -- recognize what a vicious and vile tyrant Augusto Pinochet was. To Fred Hiatt: if you find yourself cheering on a right-wing dictator who is too despotic even for Powerline (Pionchet responsible for "a bloody campaign of repression") and David Frum (Pinochet unleashed "a spasm of cruelty and violence unprecedented in the country's history"), that ought to be a fairly convincing signal that you've fallen into some pretty morally depraved territory.

On a separate note: Ezra Klein makes a good point here, and I hope people will listen to his suggestion about what should be done about it.
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*Two caveats that ought to be self-evident but will not be to some: (1) Nothing here is intended to equate (or not equate) the quantity or extent of the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime and the Bush administration; the point is that the underlying, justifying mindset is similar; and (2) Kirkpatrick's argument is well-argued and makes several other points besides the one highlighted here, including a very persuasive case against the foolish and inevitably futile attempt to "democratize" other countries that have no history of democracy.

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