AFTER nearly two months in office, Argentine President Carlos Sa'ul Menem appears to be stumbling in his search for a solution to the country's troublesome armed forces. And as Mr. Menem flounders, his apparent intention to pardon military mutineers and human- rights abusers is drawing increasing criticism, even from within the ranks of his own Peronist party.
``The President seems to be listening to five or six advisers on the military issue, and each of them is giving him a different formula on how to resolve it,'' says one expert on civil-military relations who asked not to be identified. ``His mistake was not to act quickly.''
After six years of President Raul Alfons'in, who tried leaders of former military juntas for human rights violations and earned the military's undying hatred, Menem promised during his campaign to ``rescue the Armed Forces' dignity'' and to ``promote a great national reconciliation'' between soldiers and civilians.
Though during the campaign he denied that he was considering an amnesty or pardon for rights offenders in the military, he has grown less categorical since his May 14 victory. He now suggests that ``no possibility can be ruled out.''
Defense Minister Italo Luder told reporters last week that ``the most immediate possibility is a pardon,'' pointing out that such power is constitutionally vested in the president, while only parliament can approve an amnesty. A parliamentary debate would open rifts in the ruling Peronist party ranks, as Peronist lower house leader Jose Luis Manzano said this week, arguing against the ``negativity of freeing military commanders and guerrillas imprisoned for crimes against life.''
``But we have not yet decided when'' Menem might decree a pardon ``nor whom it will affect,'' Mr. Luder cautions. ``The timing is entirely a matter for the president,'' he says.
Menem has run up against the complexity of the situation: there are four separate groups of officers in jail or facing trial for various reasons, aides explain.
About 200 officers face courts-martial for their roles in three military uprisings in 1987 and 1988, led by Lt. Col. Aldo Rico and Col. Mohamed Ali Seineldin, both of whom are in detention.
Sources close to the military say that while Menem is urging maximum lenience, Army Chief Gen. Isidro Caceres is anxious to purge his force of as many mutineers as possible.
``As a professional soldier, he knows that he can't run an army if 40 of his officers won't obey orders they don't like,'' the military analyst says.
The three members of the military junta that ordered Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 are serving sentences for military incompetence. Though the president was at one stage reported to be considering a pardon for them, too, ``they were sentenced by a military court; that's a military affair, and the military should resolve it internally,'' according to Menem's chief of staff, Alberto Kohan.
A third group comprises 18 senior military officers still facing trial for human-rights abuses during the Argentine army's ``dirty war'' against leftists in the 1970s, in which 20,000 people ``disappeared.'' Lastly there are six officers already found guilty on such charges and serving prison sentences.
A recent public opinion poll found that 91 percent of respondents oppose a pardon for Mario Firmenich, the only former guerrilla in jail and a possible beneficiary of a blanket pardon to encourage national reconciliation, while 85 percent oppose the release of former military commanders who formed the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
At the same time, argues Felipe Noguera, who took the poll, ``We found very few people who think the issue is of great importance, which I think means that Menem can do what he wants about it without running up against very stiff opposition.''
``More than anything else, people want the problem to be over. How it is solved is secondary. Menem doesn't have a blank check, but he has a fairly free hand,'' Mr. Noguera says.
Trying to tie his hands, meanwhile, human rights groups and opposition parties are organizing petitions and a protest march next week to express their rejection of any pardon. Their efforts are gathering pace as the days go by with no presidential decision.