SECRETARY OF STATE Cyrus Vance goes to Argentina today on a mission that raises the role of human rights in American foreign policy in a most excruciating form. For Argentina, perhaps as much as any country in the world today, is a society torn by raw political violence, some committed against the state, some committed by the state and - perhaps worst from the viewpoint of eventually curbing it - some committed in the name of state goals by groups that the state cannot control. It is precisely because so many abuses cannot be ascribed todeliberate government policy that the current mix of class war, ideological conflict, fanatical mysticism and anti-Semitism is so difficultto deal with.
By commonly accepted count, perhaps 4,000 Argentines have been the victims of political murder in the last four years. A list presented recently to Mr. Vance includes the names of 7,500 Argentines allegedly missing or in prison. Most estimates of the number of people who have disappeared with or without a public trace in recent years exceed 10,000. Keep in mind that the country'spopulation is one-tenth that of the United States.
The Carter administration started out like a house afire on human rights, moving against Argentina on the fronts of political, military and economic cooperation. More recently - and not just in respect to Argentina -the administration has shown an awareness that an undiscriminating passion for human rights does not lead automatically to progress in that field and, moreover, does not much incline the government inquestion to be amenable on other matters. In this instance, the United States wishes to induce Buenos Aires to become part of the Latin American nuclear-free zone, by way of diverting its nuclear ambitions from a possible effortto build its own bomb, to cooperation in peaceful nucleardevelopment with others states in its region, notably Brazil. The Argentines, understandably, take the view that the different aspects of their relationship with the United States are connected: Washington cannot focus on human rights alone.
It just may be, however, that President Jorge Videla is readier now to respond to an insistent but carefully phrased expression of American concern for Argentine human rights. He can point to certain small but positive changes in his rights poicy made since he visited Washington in September for thesigning of the Panama Canal treaties. He knows, too, that in recent months his government has made substantial headway in crushing the organized operations of left-wing anti-government terrorists, whose activities have provided much of the stimulus, or at least much of the rationale, for terror launched by the right. It should be possible for Mr. Vance to press his case without provoking an undue nationalistic backlash - always a danger in these matters.
President Videla, after all, is no thug. Whether hehas a taste for the very difficult task of cracking down on the right-wing and generallypro-government vigilantes now running riot in Argentina may still be in doubt. But he can at least identify the thousands in his jails, release those being held without charge and put a tighter rein on his own police. Surely, Gen. Videla can see the advantages to Argentina, in its domestic life and in its relations with the United States,of moving more expeditiously to respect the Western values that Argentines insist, they hold dear.