BUENOS AIRES — ARGENTINA has become the first third-world country from outside the region to take an active role in the Gulf crisis. Argentine Foreign Minister Domingo Cavallo announced the decision on Sept. 18 to join the military blockade against Iraq, saying Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel would form a ``special contingent ... with the mission of assuring peace in the Gulf.''
Though the move has sparked controversy at home, officials say it provides a valuable chance for President Carlos Sa'ul Menem to display Argentina's new pro-Western tilt in foreign affairs, and also offers eager military officers the prospect of action.
Before the decision was announced, opposition parliamentarians were insisting that, according to the Constitution, Mr. Menem needed congressional approval to send foreign troops abroad.
Mr. Cavallo skirted that issue, however, telling congressional leaders that only belligerent deployments required approval from lawmakers.
The task force ``does not constitute an intervention force, is not going to undertake offensive military action,'' he said.
Since Iraq invaded Kuwait six weeks ago, the Argentine government had said it would contribute only to a United Nations peacekeeping force, not to the US-led military blockade. Cavallo changed his mind, a close aide says, after a trip to Israel and Egypt and a request for help received Monday from a visiting member of the exiled Kuwaiti Cabinet.
Menem has also come under ``insistent pressure,'' as an official put it, from the Argentine armed forces, which have not disguised their desire to take part in imposing the embargo.
``We do not fool ourselves,'' says an Argentine Army general. ``Our presence will not tip the scales; our contribution will be much more moral than material.''
But after the international shame of failing to hold the Falkland Islands against the British in 1982, and of using brutal tactics in its 1970s ``dirty war'' against leftists at home, the Argentine military is desperate to be seen operating alongside professional, respectable allies.
``Argentina's insertion in the world cannot be partial, merely economic. It must be complete,'' the general argued. Since taking office 15 months ago, Menem has made much of his desire to open his country up to the world and to give it a new role in international affairs from a firm base in the Western camp, despite Argentina's formal membership in the nonaligned movement.
``The government wants Argentina to be a protagonist. It wants to be there,'' explains a foreign policy official. ``We didn't even have to be asked by the Americans.''
With the country still deeply mired in its worst ever economic crisis, Cavallo was quick to make clear the costs of the deployment will be paid by ``a special fund set up by the international community.''
The domestic political costs of the deployment have yet to appear. But if any Argentine sailor dies in an eventual conflict, the government will face bitter criticism.
Trotskyite leader Luis Zamora is already complaining that warships due to leave port on Saturday ``will be following orders from the Pentagon and [British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in a new display of political submission.''
``If either of the ships is sunk, it will be very hard to justify our presence,'' says the foreign policy official. ``We just pray there is no fighting.''