Admiration and the iron fist

December 13, 2006

There's something deep inside that loves a strongman. He bestows order and discipline, gets people working, cuts through all the nonsense. You hear it suggested in Washington that this is what Iraq needs (though when this was what Iraq had, it didn't make the sort of people who now offer this suggestion very happy). Eighty years ago, you could have heard the same thing being talked about in German beer halls. In the 1990s, you could hear young, talented, frustrated Russians saying it, and the way they put it was this: "What this country needs is its own Pinochet."

Russia got its strongman in the end, though of a somewhat different stripe than the one whose funeral was held yesterday in Chile.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet was the modern prototype, and his defenders are still surprisingly numerous. They will tell you that, yes, he was remorseless, but in his remorseless way he put Chile on a sound economic footing, and, moreover, he was willing to face a referendum and left office when the voters told him to - unlike (and this comparison is always made) that leftist caudillo, Fidel Castro of Cuba.

But these are peculiar arguments, especially coming from the advocates of the sort of neoconservative economic theories General Pinochet pursued. The implication is that a free market economy could not have been constructed in Chile without death squads and torture chambers. It makes you wonder why that might be - and at the same time you know it can't be true. As for the way he left office, it's worth noting that the people of Chile voted him out at the very first opportunity they had.

The strongman appeal is the appeal of a black-and-white view of the world. It holds that the alternative to authoritarian rule is the abyss, that the ruthlessness displayed by the general in Chile was a necessary means toward achieving a positive end. The ideal is used to justify whatever unsavory measures may be taken to realize it. This was, by the way, the Bolsheviks' approach in their determination to build a communist paradise on the ruins of the Russian empire.

The world is not black and white, of course. Americans, of all people, should understand that the means, in the long run, are the ends. The seeming clarity that a strongman offers is an illusion. No one should mourn the general.

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