BE warned, Chilean strongman President Augusto Pinochet said the other day: Touch one of the men under my command and the rule of law in Chile is over. By touching one of his men, Pinochet meant the possible trial of subordinates for their role in massive human rights abuses committed by his regime during more than 16 years of authoritarian rule.
Informed observers predict that Chileans will elect as their president Patricio Aylwin, the moderate leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, in national elections to be held Dec. 14. But, despite a robust economy and a sympathetic international community, the task facing Mr. Aylwin and other Chilean democrats is daunting.
A big part of the problem centers around General Pinochet, the rights issue, and questions about what shape civil-military relations will take in a democracy. The United States should make a major contribution to consolidating civilian control of Chile's armed forces.
Pinochet appears ready to give up his office in the presidential palace, but not political power. The fact Pinochet felt confident enough to make his threat speaks to the role he sees for himself - and for the armed forces - in Chile's embryonic democracy. And by appearing to lead military resistance to possible human rights trials, Pinochet appears to be trying to carve out an enduring niche for himself in the future.
``Pinochet is willing to give the opposition everything but real power,'' a respected Christian Democratic expert on military issues told me. ``Pinochet is trying to create an autonomous state-within-a-state, using laws which have absolutely no democratic legitimacy.''
Part of that effort is Pinochet's attempt to make the military institution he heads impervious to oversight. A constitution Pinochet tailored in 1980 allows himself and the head of the Navy, Air Force, and police to stay in office eight more years.
Pinochet is overseeing a secret rewriting of Army regulations, which the opposition fears will put the generals beyond civilian control. Hard-line officers demand a strict hands-off policy by civilians. Hard-liners also attack the opposition for insisting that the military defend Chile, rather than pursue ``internal enemies.''
This month Pinochet fired Gen. Jorge Zincke, a deputy Army commander who headed the profesionalista wing of what once was a strictly apolitical institution. General Zincke let it be known he favored pruning Chile's bloated general staff, and purging politicized officers and those believed responsible for the torture and ``disappearance'' of thousands of opponents. Zincke was replaced by a suitably pliant Pinochet prot'eg'e.
In the face of Pinochet's apparent end-run around civilian control, Chilean opposition spokesmen say they plan to act with realism in dealing with the military. This, they say, means something less than a full-scale prosecution of officers implicated in human rights abuses.
Aylwin's team also says it does not plan to cut the military's budget and that, while it will seek to modernize the armed forces, it will not try to ``reform'' them against the wishes of the general staff.
US military aid has long been withheld for human rights reasons. Yet, as in many Latin nations, many Chilean officers feel they are somehow different and better than civilians. Exposure to Western models could provide the Chilean military guides for future conduct.
Yet to be effective, the mere renewal of military ties is not enough. It must also be tied to a commitment to strengthen civilian authority. To that end, no aid of any sort should be authorized until after the inauguration of a civilian president on March 11, 1990. Some experts suggest aid might also be tied to Pinochet's retirement as head of the Army.
What's more, US policy must take into account the fact that years of authoritarian rule in Chile have taken a toll on civilian expertise in military oversight. ``The training of civilians in defense is essential'' if Chilean democracy is to take root, one Western diplomat told me.
What is needed is a program of military assistance that includes training for parliamentary staff and civilian Defense-Ministry officials. Such a program would signal that the US is sensitive to one of Chile's most pressing needs - civilians' knowledge of defense issues.
It would also let the military know that their concerns will be treated with respect and expertise in the new constitutional setting - but only if they allow the flower of democracy to flourish.
Martin Edwin Andersen worked as a Buenos Aires-based special correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post from 1982 to 1987. He lives in Washington.