I THINK ALL intelligent, patriotic and informed people can agree: It would be great if the U.S. could find an Iraqi Augusto Pinochet. In fact, an Iraqi Pinochet would be even better than an Iraqi Castro.
Both propositions strike me as so self-evident as to require no explanation. But as I have discovered in recent days, many otherwise rational people can't think straight when the names Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet come up.
But there are measures besides body counts. Castro took Cuba, once among the most prosperous nations in Latin America and destined for First World status, and rendered it poorer than nearby Jamaica and heading Haiti-ward. The island is a prison, and trying to leave can be a capital crime.
Civil liberties are a sham, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are nonexistent, and dissidents are routinely thrown in prison. Civil society has become deeply politicized and, hence, corrupted. In the 1990s, Castro dabbled with liberalizing the economy after welfare from the Soviet Union dried up, but he soon realized that free markets bring other freedoms, so he cast the Cuban people back into poverty rather than risk any threat to his rule. Now Castro, rudely taking a long time to die, is transferring all power to his brother, Raul. Not exactly an open primary. On the plus side, we are told, Cuba has very impressive literacy, longevity and infant mortality rates — and lavish hotels for hard-currency-carrying Westerners.
Now consider Chile. Gen. Pinochet seized a country coming apart at the seams. He too clamped down on civil liberties and the press. He too dispatched souls. Chile's official commission investigating his dictatorship found that Pinochet had 3,197 bodies in his column; 87% of them died in the two-week mini-civil war that attended his coup. Many more were tortured or forced to flee the country.
But on the plus side, Pinochet's abuses helped create a civil society. Once the initial bloodshed subsided, Chile was no prison. Pinochet built up democratic institutions and infrastructure. And by implementing free-market reforms, he lifted the Chilean people out of poverty. In 1988, he held a referendum and stepped down when the people voted him out. Yes, he feathered his nest from the treasury and took measures to protect himself from his enemies. His list of sins — both venal and moral — is long. But today Chile is a thriving, healthy democracy. Its economy is the envy of Latin America, and its literacy and infant mortality rates are impressive.
I ask you: Which model do you think the average Iraqi would prefer? Which model, if implemented, would result in future generations calling Iraq a success? An Iraqi Pinochet would provide order and put the country on the path toward liberalism, democracy and the rule of law. (If only Ahmad Chalabi had been such a man.)
Now, you might say: "This is unfair. This is a choice between two bad options." OK, true enough. But that's all we face in Iraq: bad options. When presented with such a predicament, the wise man chooses the more moral, or less immoral, path. The conservative defense of Pinochet was that he was the least-bad option; better the path of Pinochet than the path toward Castroism, which is where Chile was heading before the general seized power. Better, that is, for the United States and for Chileans.
I bring all this up because in the wake of Pinochet's death (and Jeane Kirkpatrick's), the old debate over conservative indulgence of Pinochet has elicited shrieking from many on the left claiming that any toleration of Pinochet was inherently immoral — their own tolerance of Castro notwithstanding.
But these days, there's a newfound love for precisely this sort of realpolitik. Consider Jonathan Chait, who recently floated a Swiftian proposal that we put Saddam Hussein back in power in Iraq because, given his track record of maintaining stability and recognizing how terrible things could get in Iraq, Hussein might actually represent the least-bad option. Even discounting his sarcasm, this was morally myopic. But it seems to me, if you can contemplate reinstalling a Hussein, you'd count yourself lucky to have a Pinochet.