The death OF former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet prompted ugly riots in the streets of Santiago and unusually sanctimonious prose in the columns of the Economist. "No ifs or buts," declared the magazine. "Whatever the general did for the economy, he was a bad man."
Bad? Well, few people outside the die-hard Chilean right would deny that. He was responsible for the deaths of 3,197 supporters of Salvador Allende, the elected Marxist president he overthrew in 1973. In addition to those who "disappeared," about 27,000 other people suffered torture. Behind the veneer of austere military self-discipline, Pinochet is alleged to have hoarded as much as $28 million in foreign bank accounts he set up using fake passports. Only his old age and alleged infirmity prevented him from standing trial for his crimes.
Sí, like so many other Latin American caudillos, Pinochet was a sonofabitch.
But the issue about Pinochet back in 1973 was not whether he was bad or good. Nor did anyone at the time anticipate that he would be among the pioneers of the free-market ideas espoused by the late lamented Milton Friedman. The coup of 1973 was not intended to advance the cause of the Chicago school of economics. It was meant to halt the spread of communism in Latin America. Pinochet did not have to be good to do that. As our sonofabitch, he just had to be less bad than the alternative.
Was he? Like so many questions about the Cold War, that can never be resolved definitively. Allende's Servicio de Investigaciones was certainly not above using torture. Would there have been an even worse terror of the left, directed against Chilean conservatives rather than by them, if his KGB-backed regime had remained in power?
With the benefit of hindsight and historical research, it seems unlikely. At the time, however, it was not so obvious a point made memorably by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who died Dec. 7.
As President Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Kirkpatrick was among the most articulate, not to mention feisty, voices of the new right of the 1980s. As a reminder of how the world used to be, her essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," published in Commentary in November 1979, deserves re-reading.
Writing just as American foreign policy touched its postwar nadir under Jimmy Carter, Kirkpatrick drew a sharp distinction between "moderate autocrats friendly to American interests" and "less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion." The particular autocrats she had in mind were the shah of Iran and Anastasio Somoza García, the Nicaraguan dictator, but she clearly bracketed them along with Pinochet, not to mention their fellow sonsofbitches in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala.
Kirkpatrick did not claim that these men were good. She simply argued that they were preferable to the alternatives just as Chiang Kai-shek had been preferable to Mao Tse-tung in China, and Fulgencio Batista had been preferable to Fidel Castro in Cuba. South Korea was no democracy in the 1970s, but it was better than North Korea. Taiwan was still a one-party state, but one that was much less brutal than the People's Republic of China.
The reason our sonsofbitches were better than theirs, she argued, was that while conservative dictatorships undeniably preserved "existing allocations of wealth, power [and] status," they also tended to "worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos." Communist regimes, by contrast, created "refugees by the millions" because their ideological demands so violated "internalized values and habits" that inhabitants fled.
Moreover, conservative dictatorships were much more likely than communist ones to make the transition to democracy because they permitted "limited contestation and participation."
More than A quarter of a century later, it is fascinating to see which parts of Kirkpatrick's analysis have stood the test of time and which have not.
The most glaring error was her inclination to see the red hand of the Soviet Union lurking behind every popular revolution. It was already becoming clear, even as she wrote, that the Iranian revolution was inspired more by radical Shiite clerics than by Leonid Brezhnev and his merry men. And it has become even more apparent since then that populism in Latin America can thrive without the need of sponsorship from Moscow. Just ask Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Another miscalculation was the assumption that communist regimes could not make the transition to democracy. Just 10 years later, nearly all the Soviet client states in Central Europe would do just that, with scarcely a shot fired.
On the other hand, Kirkpatrick was surely right that conservative autocracies would be more likely to make that transition and more likely to make it successfully. Not only Chile itself but also South Korea and Taiwan were among the many noncommunist autocracies to democratize in the 1980s.
By contrast, the former Soviet republics, including Russia itself, have struggled to make a success of political freedom. It is tempting to say that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin personifies the disturbing tendency of former communist countries to slide back into autocracy. Central Europe may be the exception that proves the rule.
Kirkpatrick's critique of an idealistic American foreign policy also reads rather well today. "No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans," she observed, "than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances."
Plus ça change, it's tempting to say in the light of recent events in the Middle East. Except that today's failed democratizations are not because of the machinations of the Marxist guerrillas of Kirkpatrick's day. The problem today, from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan, is more often the interaction of ethnic conflict and radical Islam, a threat disastrously underestimated by most Reaganite conservatives.
Our sonsofbitches are dead (mostly). So are theirs. But the world has not seen the last of self-propelled dictatorship, alas. Despite the strides that democracy has made since 1979, a remarkably large number of old dictatorships limp on regardless of the senescence of their leaders, from Cuba to North Korea to Zimbabwe. What's worse, a new generation of strongmen is emerging, and they are more skilled than their predecessors at disguising the mailed fist of intimidation in a velvet glove of rigged elections.
Jeane Kirkpatrick will have passed away unsurprised that this new brand of autocracy was flourishing in dear old Moscow.