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The Pinochet parallel

SHARP AS the differences are between the Cold War and the terrorist challenge from Al Qaeda, there are some parallels worth contemplating. One disturbing similarity may be discerned in the cascade of recently declassified documents about the Nixon administration's backing for the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew the elected government of President Salvador Allende in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973. That desolating chapter of history remains relevant for anyone made uneasy by the tyrants and torturers President Bush has embraced in his war on terrorism.


A nasty truth illuminated by the thousands of cables, minutes, and memos that have been declassified in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act is that the US government colluded with Pinochet's fascistic military dictatorship -- and all too many others -- out of a deluded belief that the Cold War left Washington no other choice.

This is the recurrent fallacy of a rigidly dualistic worldview. During the Cold War this paradigm allowed policy makers such as Henry Kissinger to subordinate all particularity to a simplistic myth about a worldwide communist monolith.

Enormous numbers of Americans and Vietnamese were killed unnecessarily because Kissinger and President Nixon refused to look beyond their notion of a global struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Less than four years after the last US soldiers left Vietnam, the Vietnamese invaded neighboring Cambodia to change the communist regime of the Khmer Rouge and install their own puppets. Soon after, China sent troops into Vietnam to punish the Vietnamese for toppling Beijing's proteges in Cambodia. None of these complications were accounted for in Kissinger's Cold War simplifications.

This same blinkered theology was behind a CIA cable notifying its agents in Chile, a month after Allende's election on Sept. 11, 1970, that it was Nixon's and Kissinger's "firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup." In June 1976, Kissinger was to tell Pinochet, who tortured and murdered Americans as well as Chileans, "Your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government that was going communist."

The memory of Kissinger's fallacy should serve as an antidote to President Bush's error of assuming that to fight Osama bin Laden's terrorist gang Bush needs to back any dictator and human rights abuser who wants US solicitude for the crushing of his own local Islamists. Uzbekistan's ruler Islam Karimov is no gentler than Pinochet. The military-backed regime in Algeria is no more respectful of human rights. And Bush's tolerance of Vladimir Putin's dirty war in Chechnya shames America as much as Kissinger's or Nixon's backing for Pinochet.

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