Gentleman's agreement

A bipartisan agreement lets Clinton evade comment and action on the fate of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Published December 8, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In December 1989, the U.S. armed forces descended in strength on Panama City, flattening a few of the poorer barrios, and took Gen. Manuel Noriega prisoner before "extraditing" him on a military aircraft bound for Florida. Some of the niceties were observed (a new Panamanian president was hastily sworn in on the tarmac of an American Air Force base), but not, it is safe to say, all the niceties.

So slight was the attention to international law, in fact, that the Bush administration was forced to depend for endorsement on the only two allies that never deserted it -- namely British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the congressional Democrats. Thatcher declared herself delighted that this thug had been brought to justice. The Democrats checked the polls, as they tend to do, and went along, as they always had. Asked to nominate a pretext for apprehending Noriega, the Bush administration halfheartedly cited the wife of a U.S. Navy lieutenant who had been badly roughed up by the general's goons.

The gorgeously uniformed Noriega, newly clad in prison garb, was duly convicted of some bad stuff related to narcotics and put under lock and key. He was not embarrassed by any questions about the whereabouts of his former political critics, in a country where the word "former" carries no implication of early retirement. Nor did the Florida court evince any curiosity about his role in the still-open Iran-contra business. Nor has anyone mentioned him in the current controversy about the "disposal" problem posed by another Latin America brute. But now, when it comes to the noninvasion detention of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Thatcher is incandescent with righteous rage, and the Democrats, having consulted the polls, have decided that nothing is expected of them.

A good question to ask, of any Clinton policy, is "What would George Bush have done?" This must, after all, be the question that Clinton asks himself. Sometimes, it's true, he goes for something flashy out of the Reagan or Nixon repertoire. But in general, he is predictable. Leave the economy to Greenspan and Wall Street and take the credit; pose as a "globalist" at all international summits; act as a provincial isolationist when global standards could impede the imperial liberties of the United States. There, that's not so hard, is it? In fact, it's easier than pie because Clinton can count on minimal opposition from liberals -- a boon that for Reagan and Bush was too much to expect.

I don't think that a Republican administration could have gone for three whole months, cost-free, without saying a word about the Pinochet case. (Indeed, I sometimes think that a Republican administration that sabotaged the land-mine treaty and negated the near-unanimous vote on an international court for war crimes, as Clinton did, would have attracted some criticism, too.) But it turns out, as so often, that bipartisanship really does do its job, by putting all controversial questions into a twilight zone.

In the first days of Pinochet's detention, Clinton and his accomplice, Attorney General Janet Reno, did receive some politely written mail. A whole three dozen (count them) congressional Democrats signed a letter. One of them was John Conyers of Michigan, who's had a full plate recently and who burns with fury at the gulag into which -- you must have noticed -- Monica Lewinsky was hurled. He's been too busy for a follow-up on Pinochet, and we all understand that this is part of the game of "Let's move on."

A Republican letter would have been just as useful, pointing out that while nobody takes the United States seriously on human rights, everybody listens when Washington talks about terrorism: Showers of lethal missiles ensue on a false rumor from Sudan, a full-dress invasion of Panama for the honor of a Navy man's wife, but the identified culprit in the Chilean murder plot that slew an American bride, Ronnie Moffitt, in Washington, D.C., leads to nervous coughing and shuffling of the feet. On Monday, Moffitt's husband and father joined family members of other
Pinochet murder victims at a press conference to demand that the Clinton
administration support Spain's extradition request, as well as bring one of
its own, in order to prosecute Pinochet for the murder of Moffitt and
Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier.

I have made two correct predictions about the Pinochet case, and I'll now venture a third. I thought the High Court in London would defer to the bastard's exalted status as a fascist trade partner, and I was right. I thought the Law Lords would find "sovereign immunity" too much to swallow, and I was right. I thought the second thing partly because I knew Lord Hoffman, one of the five Law Lords, back when he was Lenny, and I guessed he didn't want his whole life to be a waste of time. I also know Home Secretary Jack Straw, who will ultimately decide Pinochet's fate in England, and I think he'll contrive a "humane" way to let the dictator go home. Everything Straw does is modeled on Clinton, from "zero tolerance" for dope to school uniforms and curfews for teenagers. People who preach "law 'n' order" for the weak are invariably soft on crime when it comes to the strong.

But there is a "third way" (a Clintonesque expression I'll try never to employ again). Before Pinochet goes home, he should be subpoenaed not as a defendant but as a witness. Under penalty of perjury, he could either be taken to the Hague or have lawyers from the Hague come to his clinic. And he could be made to say where his victims are buried and tell us what happened to them. A conviction in Spain could easily be won on the existing evidence, without his testimony, and that would leave the families of the disappeared no better informed than before. Once the creature has fully answered the questions, he can be told to get lost, and to live out the rest of his useless existence as he pleases. This would attach the "Truth and Justice" principle to the international culpability of war crimes and state crimes, and would not lack deterrent force.

What a pity, then, that the Clintonoids robbed the international tribunal of superpower support. What a shame that they never uttered the only words that could have stiffened the spine of Straw. Perhaps there is a ring to the words "sovereign immunity" -- a ring that catches the fancy of a president who has lately and abruptly ceased to be a strict law 'n' order Democrat.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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