Falklands: a better way?

Two things might usefully be said about the Falkland Islands crisis at this point. One concerns the way it is being handled, the other the substance of the dispute itself.

On the procedural point, Secretary of State Alexander Haig is to be commended for his marathon effort to keep war from breaking out. The United States, having close ties with both Britain and Argentina, is in the singular position of being able to provide its good offices. Mr. Haig has seized this opportunity and admirably undertaken an extremely arduous mission.

So far, however, his diplomatic efforts have not yielded results, and it is not being unkind to Mr. Haig to ask whether this kind of long-distance shuttle diplomacy is the proper and efficient way to go about things. Such a method, popularized by Henry Kissinger, proved successful in the Middle East where adversaries were living cheek by jowl. But experienced negotiators point to the pitfalls of getting agreement from the Argentines, say, and then letting the matter rest for 18 hours while the intermediary is travelling and the Argentines have time to rethink, reassess - and change their mind.

Negotiation, in other words, demands communicating quickly and giving the parties no letup.

It just might be wise for President Reagan to designate someone else for the mediation effort; perhaps even a whole diplomatic team that could be stationed in both nations' capitals and keep the lines of communication constantly open. Or, such a negotiation effort could take place in a third, a neutral Latin American country, with British and Argentine representatives present. In any case, a specially assigned mediator could give single-minded attention to the problem and stay with it until the issue was resolved. Mr. Haig, meantime, would be freed to give attention to other trouble spots, not least of all the Middle East where he has now sent a first-rate diplomat but one with little knowledge of the region. That would seem to be a more sensible way to proceed.

On the substantive point, the immediate problem is to find some formula whereby each side can save face. Argentina vows it will not pull out its troops before it is assured on the issue of Argentine sovereignty over the islands, and Britain will not discuss the issue until the Argentine troops pull out. Argentina miscalculated in its brazen, unlawful takeover of the islands, and now the military government risks being toppled if it backs down. Yet it should be possible to persuade the Argentines to accept some face-saving compromise to separate the would-be combatants while negotiations over sovereignty proceed -- and to enable London to claim that it forced the Argentines to back off.

We say possible because there is in effect no conflict over the basic issue. One can argue whether Argentine should or should not have sovereignty over the Falklands, but the fact is that Britain is prepared to give up sovereignty -- as long as it is not done under the gun and recognizes the rights of the islanders. It had already agreed with the Argentines to such a transfer, and the plan fell through only because the Falklanders would not accept it. At the moment any number of proposals are being mooted in the British news media: a nominal Argentine sovereignty with Britain leasing back the islands; a UN-backed statute of autonomy for the islanders, and so on. Clearly the people of the Falklands would have to approve whatever plan is negotiated, but, with the issue now at a crisis stage and Britons seriously confronting the question of how long they want to or can hang on, that obstacle might not be as insurmountable as it once was.

The overriding need now is not to give up in the face of disappointment and fear. Negotiation has not failed. The question is whether it has been given a fair chance to succeed -- and, if not, what might be done to give it that chance.

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