BUENOS AIRES — AS two Argentine warships set sail yesterday for the Gulf, their deployment sparked a fierce debate in Buenos Aires over the whole direction of the country's foreign policy. President Carlos Sa'ul Menem's decision to join the United States-led embargo against Iraq means ``breaking with the position of independence sustained since the restoration of democracy'' in 1984, said the opposition Radical Civic Union Party in a motion before the Senate last week.
Resentment at this about-face was so strong that the only way to avert a condemnation of the government was for 10 senators of the ruling Peronist Party to leave the congressional session, thus eliminating a quorum.
Mr. Menem explains the deployment in the framework of his bid to open Argentina up to the world politically and economically after decades of inward-looking protectionism.
``We are in another world where neutrality does not exist,'' he argues. ``Argentina cannot allow itself the luxury, as it emerges from a crisis, to remain isolated from the rest of the world.''
Defense Minister Humberto Romero, seconding the decision to send a task force to the Gulf in the face of strong parliamentary criticism, did not mince words when he laid out the benefits he saw in the move.
``It will allow Argentina to emerge from its odious isolation and to play in the big league, the one that gives a country a voice and a vote, rather than being submerged in the ostracism and obscurantism of underdevelopment,'' he said.
That approach has drawn the scorn of critics such as former Foreign Minister Dante Caputo, who complained that Menem has swept aside Argentina's traditional policy of neutrality without parliamentary debate. He warned that ``associating with the rich has not solved the problems of the poor.''
Nationalist politicians of both right and left condemned the government for sending Argentine troops to take part in operations alongside the British, their traditional enemy, and to support the US, which withheld support from Buenos Aires during the 1982 Falkland Islands war.
``We cannot defend Great Britain's oil interests,'' fumes Peronist Congressman Alberto Samid. ``Are we going to offer Argentine lives to the same ones who killed our boys in the Malvinas [Falklands]?''
Former President Ra'ul Alfons'in also mocked the deployment decision as ``a ridiculous and grotesque overreaction.'' But Antonio Quarracino, the new conservative archbishop of Buenos Aires, is more understanding of the government's thinking.
``If we don't commit ourselves, we will not have the right to complain that the West doesn't listen to us, or overlooks us in their decisions,'' he says. ``I support the decision to be with the West, with the United States; we cannot stand aside if we want them to take an interest in us.''
The dispatch of the military contingent, which is expected to arrive in the Gulf in about 30 days, has won plaudits from the US. President Bush sent a letter to Menem last week saying the decision was ``highly appreciated'' and evidence of Menem's desire to give Argentina ``a leading and prominent role in world affairs.''
``Frankly, we're very impressed,'' a European diplomat here added. ``They're doing it to show they want to be a serious country. They may have trampled on the Constitution in not consulting Congress, but the thinking behind the move is right.''
Foreign Minister Domingo Cavallo has sought to play down the government's pro-Western bent, stressing that the embargo against Iraq is an international affair and explaining his vision of the future.
``We are convinced that in these historic times the possibility of creating a totally new world order is emerging,'' he says. ``And we believe it is important that we be present at the beginning of a new international security system.''
Mr. Cavallo also sees advantages for the Argentine military in this deployment.
``It is very important for our armed forces that they begin to work on their role in ensuring international security, rather than limiting themselves to the regional arms race and planning conflicts with our neighbors,'' he says.
``The problem is that our military has no real role, especially now that the government is making friends with all the countries we might once have gone to war with, like Chile and Brazil,'' adds a government official privately. ``We have to find something for them to do, and this is an ideal opportunity to give them something new to think about.''
Though many government officials hope participation in the blockade will reap immediate economic rewards for Argentina, Economy Minister Erman Gonz'alez is more restrained.
The deployment ``shows the government's political maturity, but does not carry with it any kind of speculation about economic advantages,'' Mr. Gonz'alez cautioned. He is in Washington this week for talks with the International Monetary Fund and commercial creditor banks.