Argentina may be the loose end in the Carter administration's effort to weave a Western-world embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union. The South American nation's resistance to going along could cause the whole effort to unravel.
So serious is the threat of an Argentine rebuff that Washington dispatched Lt. Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, a former NATO commander, to Buenos Aires to persuade the Argentines to go along with the embargo. But to date, General Goodpaster, after lengthy conversations with top Argentines, has not been able to alter Argentina's interest in selling its grain to the Soviets.
The irony of the situation for Washington is that its decision to stop grain sales to the Soviet Union in protest over the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan led to a drop in the US grain prices, which in turn triggered a rush by Argentine grain buyers to purchase cheaper US wheat and corn.
For the Argentines, this meant a scramble for new markets -- and the Soviets and their East European allies have quickly become the ready purchasers of Argentina's export surplus of 12 million metric tons.
In part, Washington's problem is a serious miscalculation of Argentina's grain production.
As late as two weeks ago, the US Department of Agriculture was forecasting lower grain production than Argentina's Ministry of Agriculture. The US prediction was 10 million tons, compared to Argentina's forecast of slightly more than 14 million tons, 2 million of which was targeted for domestic consumption and the remainder for overseas sales.
On top of this miscalculation, the US State Department apparently failed to take into account the importance of Argentina on the world grain market.
An Argentine in Washington who is close to the US embargo effort commented, "Washington again displayed abysmal ignorance of our strength and situation." That has been the complaint of successive Argentine governments.
Complicating the Carter administration's efforts to win Argentina's support for the embargo, moreover, is the legacy of ill will between the two countries stemming from President Carter's sharp attacks on the South American nation for human-rights violations.
"Just how does the Carter administration expect to get support from us, [when ] it practically ostracized us during its first three years of office?" an Argentine official asked last week. "Maybe Mr. Carter will finally realize that Argentina is not a nation that he can push around", he said.
General Goodpaster, after conferring with Argentine Foreign Minister Gen. Carlos Washington Pastor and Economy Minister Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, apparently has realized the truth of that statement. "The talks are progressing slowly," a Goodpaster aide commented.
As if to signal Washington of its independence, Argentina announced Jan. 24 that Argentine athletes will compete in the Moscow Olympics.
This does not suggest Argentine support for Soviet action in Afghanistan -- indeed, General Washington Pastor had earlier declared Argentina's "disgust" with the Soviet action. But it does suggest Argentina's will to act in what it sees as its own interest.
"What is right for the US is not necessarily right for Argentina. That's what we've been trying to tell Washington all along," an Argentine Foreign Ministry aide commented Jan. 26.
The basic problem is Argentine anger over criticism on the human-rights issue. From Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, the nation's military leader, on down through the ranks of leaders, there is a stiffening of resistance to this criticism and new assertions that Washington's criticism is unfair.
The reasoning goes that the US fails to take into account the serious urban and rural terrorist movements that the military has had to grapple with since coming to power in 1976.
As a protest over Washington's attitude, Argentina in 1977 ended its traditional military relationship with the US, choosing instead to purchase arms from France, Israel, and Czechoslovakia, rather than submit to a State Department review of the human-rights situation as required by Congress for all countries receiving US military aid. "You can expect this sort of relationship to continue," commented Buenos Aires's La Nacion last week. "There is a limit to how much interference you can accept in your internal affairs."