Falklands lesson for the US

By , David D. Newsom, former US undersecretary of state for political affairs, is director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

There will undoubtedly be, after the Falkland events are over, a lingering debate on whether the United States may have encouraged the Argentine invasion.

There is little evidence that the US knew in advance of Argentine preparations and intentions. It is highly unlikely that any responsible US official would have encouraged the precipitation of such a crisis.

The question of whether the US, knowing Argentina's intentions, encouraged the action is not the issue. The issue is whether the new stance of the Reagan administration toward Argentina encouraged the leaders of that country to believe that the US would not only stand aside, but would discourage the British from reacting. The answer to this question will be much more difficult to find, locked as it is in the minds of those who conceived and launched the invasion.

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A look at the circumstances surrounding recent US-Argentine relations may not provide a definitive answer, but it can suggest the risks involved in moving closer to a regime such as that in Buenos Aires.

Throughout Latin America there exists an undercurrent of mixed suspicion and expectation toward the US. Even in the democracies it is hard to shake the assumption that the US retains and exercises the power to control events in Latin America.

This belief is even more pronounced in an authoritarian regime like Argentina. As proud and as distant as that nation is, its rulers, particularly its military rulers, have long sought the approbation of the US for Argentine actions.

It has been a matter of special frustration and bitterness on the part of the current military regime that the US has not accepted the premise that the internal excesses against the population, the disappearances, the torture, the confinement without trial, were a necessary part of a ''civil war'' against the communists.

In the relatively simple way the Argentine leadership looks at the world, the US is seen as the primary opponent of communism and a natural supporter of Argentina's internal struggle. They have not previously been able to understand why, when they see their own internal opposition in terms of the global struggle against the communists, Washington has not been fully sympathetic to both objectives and methods.

During the Carter administration, the Argentine regime felt alienated by the US, but the leadership continued to hope that other political elements in the US would ultimately see things differently and turn the relationship around. Representatives of Argentina made special efforts to cultivate those unsympathetic to the Carter policies.

The US election campaign was, to them, marked by clear indications in the rhetoric and in some of those who were prominent in the campaign that, if Ronald Reagan won, there would be a change in policy. That change in policy was not long in coming.

It was marked by a visit to Washington of the President of Argentina. It was followed by trips to Argentina by prominent US officials and by signals that Argentine help was desired in the broader Latin American battle against communism.

It is not hard to imagine that the Argentine leadership, having at last achieved US recognition of their cause, would assume that the US might be prepared to tolerate the pursuit of other Argentine national objectives as well. The disappointment that this did not happen is obviously very deep.

The US clearly cannot be held responsible for the actions of another, very different government. But the issue is that of the risk to the US's broader interests of building cooperative relationships with leaders who take an unreal view of the world and of its own objectives and policies.

In such a case, it is not US actions, but the way they are interpreted. When a regime seeks US approbation for questionable policies, Washington should be cautious. The probability is always present that it will assume, however incorrectly, that the US will also be tolerant of questionable policies.

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