THE HOUSE Foreign Affairs Committee is being asked today, by its Latin America subcommittee, to do a small but mischievous thing. It centers on a new administration military-aid program meant to train small numbers of officers in the ways and values of arms control and international peacekeeping. Chile, Brazil and Argentina, who have been cut off from access to American military aid, would not ordinarily be eligible for this program, but the subcommittee would like to invite them in.

The main argument for opening the door is that the program, rather than simply reinforcing traditional national-security methods and objectives, would draw participants into programs of particular value for international cooperation. It is argued that there is a special reason to draw military governments into such programs, since they might not otherwise have much interest in arms control or peacekeeping. The proposal also appeals to those who believe that Chile in particular ought to be rewarded for its passage out of a prolonged period of especially brutal repression. Indeed, an undeniable measure of relaxation is evident there.

Nonetheless, we find the case for the new program flabby, and not merely because it asks a peripheral activity to influence politics at the core. The longtime American association -- some would call it romance -- with the Latin military has simply not had enough of a payoff in terms of either the growth of political institutions or economic development to justify extending it into a new realm. Moreover, the regimes in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, each in its fashion, have deplorable human-rights records. They should not be offered the small symbolic cleansing they might gain, or claim, from this program.

Brazil, large and proud, is certain to be wary anyway of any American program that has the look of aid, if only to avoid what it considers the indignity of being made the subject of the human-rights report that the State Department files annually on each aid recipient. Whether Argentina's military government would want to take part in the program is questionable. Chile presumably is ready but, as always in its case, special considerations apply. The Pinochet regime, having physically destroyed its opposition, is softening at least in style. It deserves and has received some public recognition for this turn -- in international human-rights reports and in stories in the foreign press. But Chile is nowhere near regaining the functioning orderly democracy it enjoyed before the Allende regime lost control and the military took over. That is the main reason the United States should not offer it a role in the new program.