Fire over the Falklands

Britain is combining resoluteness with carefully measured pressure in its military actions in the Falklands. The world can only feel disappointment that the Falklands crisis has reached the point of shooting. But the military operations at this writing appear to have been precisely calculated and relatively restrained: presumably because Britain seeks at every turn to give Argentina an opportunity to step back from its unlawful course, and because the British are under constraints to minimize casualties. There is no taste for an all-out bash. The question is how far the shooting will go before the realities of the situation sink home in Buenos Aires. The battle is in effect a test of wills.

Reason still lies on the side of a negotiated settlement, and few look upon the British military pressures as other than setting the stage for further diplomacy. Now that the United States has come down squarely on the side of its British ally--and it could do no less morally or politically--Washington's role as a mediator seems effectively diminished.

A next logical step is to move the diplomatic focus to the United Nations, as Britain and the United States show some signs of doing. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar already is engaged in a vigorous effort to find a solution that would enable Argentina to withdraw its forces from the Falklands and begin talks without intolerable loss of face. Britain seems lukewarm to another Security Council meeting. But it must weigh the international criticism it would invite if it resisted a UN initiative to bring the crisis to an end--and the prospect of heavy loss of life if it remained adamant. Inasmuch as Britain is acting under the legal imprimatur of a Security Council resolution and the UN Charter, it could hardly refuse to go along with further council action.

It is Argentina, however, that faces anguishing choices. Pride, honor, prestige--all these are now bound up with the sorry predicament it has gotten itself into. Can it extricate itself without a change of government, with all the risk and instability this would entail? That is impossible to know. But, if the Argentinians are acting out of true national self-interest rather than jingoistic emotion, they will reflect on the benefits to be gained by swallowing their pride, which is not a good guide to action in any circumstance. There is, after all, no dispute of substance over the Falklands--which makes full-scale war all the more ridiculous. Britain has long been prepared to give up sovereignty of the islands if the Falklanders can be brought around. With all that has happened in the past month, it is not unlikely that the next effort to persuade the islanders of the reasonableness of some new political arrangement will be more successful.

While search for a diplomatic solution goes on, a British policy of military restraint is to be encouraged. To be sure, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is fighting for a principle--namely, that aggression not be rewarded. On this score she has the support of most of the international community and rightly so. International law has to be defended and democracies must be willing to take appropriate action to defend it. But largeness of character in a nation--and political sagacity--also require knowing the point beyond which an adversary must not be humiliated if the way to peace is to be opened. It is to be recalled, for instance, that Israel stopped short of inflicting total defeat on the Egyptians in the 1973 war; the eventual outcome of that ''stalemate'' was the first peace treaty in the Middle East in over 30 years. Moreover, if great numbers of Argentinians are killed - in a squabble that is not really a squabble--Britain must reckon with how it might then look in the eyes of the world.

Needed on all sides, in short, is the ability to see the difference between human will and wisdom. If Britain's and Argentina's friends cannot directly affect the sad events unfolding in this remote corner of the globe, they surely can pray that two nations of Christian persuasion will find the moral courage and the insight to settle their differences by peaceful means.

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