ONLY SUCH A TOWERING PILE of self-absorbed arrogance as Don Rumsfeld could have the gumption to take a couple of high-profile victory laps at the precise moment in which his war policies have collapsed into full-blown catastrophe.

If he had been a Japanese official suffering such shame and dishonor, he might have had a nice, solo sashimi dinner during which he contemplated all his mistakes, and then, in a final act of penance, plunged the Ginsu knife into himself and yanked out his own shriveled but still beating heart. Instead, this guy was out there bouncing around this weekend in his tennis shoes and with a 25-cent grin on his mug, communing with “his” troops on what was billed as his farewell tour to Iraq. By the way, I want to know why we the taxpayers have to pick up the tab for this obviously self-promoting P.R. junket. Rummy’s out of office this coming Monday, so no one can seriously believe he was conducting any official government business while stomping through the Green Zone.

No matter: Really, the payback awaiting Rumsfeld might be of a somewhat more ominous nature. With the death of the former Chilean dictator this past Sunday, perhaps Rummy should do some reading on what human-rights activists call the Pinochet precedent. Then, get himself a couple of lawyers. Allow me to explain: Back in 1998, by then retired from the taxing life of dictator and now merely a self-appointed and unelected senator-for-life, General Augusto Pinochet rolled into London with an eerily similar Rumsfeldian swagger. His plan was much the same as Rummy’s — intense image redemption. For the first time almost ever, Pinochet arranged to give a long self-serving interview with The New Yorker, do a little shopping at Harrods, have some high tea with Maggie Thatcher, and get a needed tune-up on a back problem in a posh, private clinic.

Instead, Interpol tagged the aging strongman with an arrest warrant issued by Spanish judges probing the dictator’s role in the murder of Spanish citizens in Chile. As Pinochet was placed in British custody, what became known as the Pinochet precedent constituted a watershed moment in international human rights. In a new global era, no longer could egregious human-rights violators roam with impunity. If their own governments wouldn’t get them, others might.

While he languished in British custody for 503 days, Pinochet was slapped with follow-up warrants from a half-dozen other European nations. In the end, the Brits kicked him back to Chile, where he was immediately hit with 200 more accusations of murder, torture and mayhem. He was indicted five times, and only his illness allowed him to escape formal trial. But by the time he checked out last week at age 91, he was not only discredited and decrepit, but also unable to travel outside Chile for fear of arrest.

Though it hasn’t gotten much publicity, our own Dr. Kissinger, an early sponsor of Pinochet, is in a similar fix. Wanted by courts in Argentina and France, and with similar subpoenas lurking in an unknown number of other venues, for some time now Dr. K has had to be very careful about where he travels.

Which brings us back to Rummy. He might not have quite matched Pinochet’s record of butchery. But he did authorize, defend and preside over a series of policies that can only be described — by adults — as torture. The hooding of prisoners, electrical shocking, simulated executions and waterboarding that have become routine in U.S. military prisons are all methods first refined by the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships. Now, some of Rummy’s victims are as intent on hunting him down and dragging him into court as were those who survived Pinochet’s less-than-gentle ministrations.

Indeed, last Friday, just as Rummy was staging his final AstroTurf “town hall” meeting at the Pentagon, lawyers for nine Iraqi and Afghan men who had been held in U.S.-run prisons and subjected to torture were standing in a New York district court arguing for the right to sue Rumsfeld and other top-ranking military officials. The suit is the first attempt to hold American officials personally responsible for abuse and torture at U.S. detention centers. The court might not eventually grant venue. But then comes the really bad news.

Similar charges against Rumsfeld and 11 other current American officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have also been filed before German prosecutors on behalf of a dozen other former prisoners from U.S. military camps. Why Germany? Because German law contains the principles of universal jurisdiction, empowering the courts to prosecute people for war crimes no matter where committed. In other words, the Pinochet precedent.

For political reasons, it’s difficult to see the Germans putting a chained-up Rummy in the dock. But drawn-out legal maneuvering by the plaintiffs in the case could keep a subpoena or warrant against Rumsfeld (and Gonzales and former CIA Director George Tenet, among others) active for years to come. If I were Don Rumsfeld, I’d keep those running shoes tightly tied and my lawyer’s phone number sewn into my coat pocket.

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