IT is tempting to say of General Pinochet's Chile what Le Monde said of the Shah's Iran in a 1978 editorial: ``Any government that has to use as much force after years in power as it did taking power is a government on the way out.'' The crucial question is whether the United States will abandon the general as it did the Shah.
Pinochet is becoming a liability. An unpopular leader can help organize the radical elements in the opposition. For that pragmatic reason, Ronald Reagan's policy in Latin America has been to move away from dictators and encourage the establishment of governments that give the appearance of democracy.
It's his policy in Chile. Part of that effort took place while flying a Chilean junta member, Gen. Fernando Matthei, to an air force meeting in Ecuador. A short time later General Matthei publicly broke with Pinochet's strategy and recommended that the scheduled vote for Congress be advanced from 1989 to 1986, and at that time the junta resign. He also proposed that the political parties agree to let Pinochet remain as President until 1989. This September compromise was not accepted because of the intransigence of Pinochet and of the opposition, whose first demand is his resignation.
The intransigence remains, but the United States may be at a turning point set off by the state of siege Pinochet declared Nov. 6. In early February he extended the state of siege for 90 more days. That further alienated the US and some of Pinochet's Chilean supporters who fear that his refusal to make any concessions will lead to a more violent polarization of the country.
One US official appraising the situation said, ``This dynamic can't go on forever.'' The divisions are increasing between those in the White House who want to distance themselves from Pinochet and those who want to stay with him despite his government's loss of legitimacy.
If it is decided that the best way out of the impasse is to get rid of Pinochet, it could be done. The White House claim of having no leverage because it gives no direct aid is disingenuous. There is the promise of future aid and power to key individuals and parties. There is the threat to a debtor nation of a destabilizing economic squeeze. A cut in international financing would make it difficult for Pinochet to continue pacifying the middle class and military. President Reagan is not likely to be any more deterred in Chile by the principle of nonintervention than he was when funding contras in Nicaragua.
A decision by the Reagan administration to abandon the general will depend more on his likely successor. It would have to be sure the left could not elect another Marxist president. In a speech, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Michel said Chile faces the task ``not only of reestablishing democracy but of defining the democratic system.'' One definition that might be acceptable is in the 1980 Constitution. In effect, this prohibits the communist and most socialist parties from participating in future elections. This is the given in the transition plans of Pinochet's wavering supporters on the right.
The center's Christian Democrats are divided over disenfranchising one-third of the voters in the name of democracy. One clue to their ultimate decision will be found in the identity of the faction that wins the party's internal election. Another clue lies in history. In 1973 that equally divided party tilted right to support the coup, sacrificing the democratic tradition for the possibility of power. If a center-right coalition agrees to exclude the left and Pinochet still refuses to budge, his relationship with the US would become precarious.
If the Chilean opposition is not able to do this, a second plan to get rid of Pinochet is quietly being discussed in the Reagan administration. It involves holding an election in 1989, with the US backing a candidate against Pinochet. This would require a shift in strategy to woo the general temporarily into cooperating in his own distruction. The recent friendly trip to Chile by Assistant Secretary of State Langhorne A. Motley was the beginning of that effort.
The US and Chilean center right may both be forced to act more quickly if Chile explodes again in the protest planned for March and if the general responds only with more force. He may compare himself to Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain for over 30 years, but in his growing isolation he more closely resembles the Shah. He could be just as surprised to discover that his massive desk in La Moneda is as fragile as a peacock throne.
Marlene Nadle is a journalist who was based in Chile and is a senior research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.