Earlier this month, the Clinton administration announced plans for two security-related initiatives in Latin America, both apparently meant to underscore growing US confidence in the region's governments.
The US lifted its 20-year blanket ban on the transfer of high-tech weapons to Latin America and proposed to designate Argentina a non-NATO ally (a category heretofore reserved for a handful of countries like Israel, Jordan, and Korea that are close US partners in actively hostile situations).
The reaction in Latin America - particularly among the countries most affected - has been almost the opposite of what was intended. Instead of good will, the announcements provoked suspicions about US aims and rekindled some of the historic anxieties between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. All this has occurred less than two months after the US constructively promoted a resolution in the Organization of American States calling for a legal framework to ensure advanced notification and greater transparency in arms acquisitions.
In itself, the decision to allow US companies once again to sell advanced weapons to Latin America was hardly unreasonable. The grounds for imposing the prohibition in the first place, back in 1977, have largely disappeared.
Repressive military regimes have been replaced by elected civilian governments. Aside from the festering frontier dispute between Ecuador and Peru, the countries of the region are at peace with one another. The prospect of armed conflict across borders has never been lower. Military expenditures, not very high by international standards to begin with, have been dropping steadily and sharply almost everywhere.
The opponents of renewed US sales have exaggerated the danger that they would spark a new regional arms race - generating new frictions and squandering resources that would be better used for social purposes. After all, the countries have long had access to similar weapons from European suppliers.
But the US decision ending the bar on arms transfers was not universally welcomed in Latin America. The Argentine government, which for most of this decade has been Washington's staunchest supporter in the region, was strongly opposed. Argentina does not, at this time, want to spend money on sophisticated weapons; nor, however, does it want its military officers envious of their neighbors and alienated from their government. Brazil was ambivalent. It may soon be in the market for jet aircraft and other advanced weapons, but does not appreciate the prospect of increased pressure - from its military or from US manufacturers - to buy now. Even the Chileans, who have announced plans for major purchases of military hardware and thus stand to benefit first from the new US policy, resent the implication that the US has bestowed a special favor on them.
The US decision to make Argentina a special military ally also has some justification. Argentina was the only Latin American country to volunteer troops for the Gulf war. It has regularly sent troops to international peacekeeping missions, including to such US priority spots as Haiti and Bosnia. In almost every instance, Argentina has energetically supported US security and arms control initiatives. Further, the US action may alleviate the concerns of Argentina's military forces about Chilean arms purchases from the US.
Still, singling out Argentina was bound to rankle Chile and Brazil and create some apprehension about US motives. Both countries see themselves as strong allies of the US, and want to be on equal footing with other Latin American nations in their security relations with Washington.
There was no need for the US to make these decisions now. Neither decision serves any particularly urgent purpose. Neither advances any strong US interest in Latin America. Backtracking or recanting is not the answer. It would add to the confusion and rancor among Latin American governments.
What the US should do, instead, is to shape a coherent policy framework that will guide and anchor future decisions, and help to explain them to others. The US should be working with every country in the hemisphere to develop arms control and restraint arrangements that will build confidence among nations and strengthen civilian control of armed forces.
That will contribute more to peace and genuine security in Latin America than a unilateral US embargo on advanced military sales.
* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.