After the war: Argentina and the West

The battle in the Falklands is over. Now comes the task of repairing relations between Argentina and the West.

That will have many components, not least of all Britain's willingness to seek a political solution to the sovereignty question. It will also involve an improvement of ties between Argentina and the United States in the wake of US support for Britain in the war. This will not be easy, given the bitterness the US stand engendered among Argentinians, but it is absolutely essential if the US is to exert a positive influence in that part of the world.

President Reagan, to his credit, has taken a first step toward resuming the dialogue by lifting the US economic sanctions imposed on Argentina when the war began. These were to large extent symbolic. In any case, now that Britain has moved to return the remaining prisoners of war, and in view of the fact that the European Economic Community last month lifted its own embargo, there is no reason to continue the US sanctions.

The more difficult issue, however, will be that of US arms exports. Mr. Reagan cannot at the moment lift military sanctions because of Argentina's human rights record. Indeed there will be little public sympathy in the US for supplying Buenos Aires with any kind of arms after its Falklands folly. Yet the fact remains that Argentina is bound to rearm, and the question is whether it will purchase weapons from the West or, if that route is closed to it, turn to the Soviet Union.

Surely it is in the US interest to avoid the latter development. Thus it would appear sensible for policymakers, in Washington and other Western capitals , to find some way to provide Argentina with a stable source of arms for minimal defense purposes. It can be quietly argued to Argentinian leaders that, by rearming beyond a reasonable level of defense, Argentina not only risks further strains on its economy but greater tensions with neighboring Chile and the disapproval of other South American states.

At the same time there should be no abandoning of the concern about human rights. The US is now in a position to try to influence the new government - by making clear it supports dialogue with opposition leaders, the eventual holding of national elections, and the establishment of a genuine democratic state. It hardly needs saying that, if Argentina had had such a government, it would not have embarked on the Falklands aggression.

Authoritarianism may be something better than ''totalitarianism,'' as UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick would have it. But it is still a potentially dangerous way to govern.

Then there is the Falklands sovereignty issue. It seems clear that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is in no mood at the moment to show the magnanimity toward Argentina which many of her compatriots believe would best serve a lasting peace. But it is in the US interest to persuade Britain that, in the end, a political settlement will be the only way to prevent fueling Argentinian irredentism, encouraging militarism in Buenos Aires, and inviting further military conflict.

There will be, in short, no profit to the West in the total humiliation of Argentina. The nation was decidely in the wrong in seizing the Falklands, and it has suffered for it. The task for US diplomacy now is to begin that process of communication which will help steer Argentina in constructive directions and enable it to become the vibrant and democratic nation it has the resources to be.

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