There is a silver lining to the cloud the Falklands crisis has cast over the United States' standing in the hemisphere. With any luck, the special partnership the administration has been trying to build with Argentina in Central America may disintegrate.
To be sure, pained moans are emanating from the parts of the Reagan administration that had come to prize the covert intelligence services that Argentina's dictators were of a mind to provide.
These include the training of local operatives in Guatemala, Honduras and apparently El Salvador, and perhaps the running of certain operations, especially operations directed against Nicaragua. In the trade, the Argentines enjoy a reputation for professionalism stemming from their record in suppressing home- grown "subversives," who were killed or "disappeared" by the thousands. One technique imported to Guatemala to search for guerrilla "safe houses," for instance, entails computerizing electricity consumption records so that a house using a large surge for a transmitter can be quickly located.
It's not clear how important Argentina's services have been in the overall scheme of things. My guess is that the actual scale and significance of whatever has been done is less than the sense of potency and potential that these activities have imparted to administration planning.
Many officials believe that Central America is the chief front in the war against Soviet-sponsored imperialism, that the other side has pulled out all the stops, and that the United States must pull out the stops, too. The Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, seen as irreversibly Marxist-Leninist, has become the central target. The very notion that it might endure makes otherwise sensible officials livid.
Nicaragua has been building up its own intelligence apparatus and aiding the Salvadoran guerrillas, and this has confirmed administration officials in their determination to strike back. What they found when they took office, however, was that the CIA had lost its cutting edge in Central America--old "assets," cooperative locals, had faded away. Reforms adopted in the 1970s kept the new administration from sharpening a new blade and wielding it freely.
Enter the Argentine generals, for their own reasons, with a hand at once available, skilled and easily concealed.
So the question now is who is going to do the Reagan administration's dirty work in Central America.
If American-Argentine relations are not knit back up, the administration may have to decide whether to involve itself more deeply in regional covert operations. A realist, noting the grim mood in Washington, would have to conclude that's the likely course.
But the administration does have another choice: to fade out of the dirty tricks business (as distinguished from the intelligence-gathering business) in a region where for 30 years dirty tricks seem to have brought short-term embarrassment when they failed and long-term embarrassment when, as in the case of the Guatemala coup of 1954, they succeeded.
True, this would require altering the Nicaraguan core of American regional policy. This core rests on the calculated application of pressure, tension and uncertainty --$19 million worth, it's been reported--to destabilize the Sandinistas, not simply to induce them to stop helping El Salvador's guerrillas. This leads us to support an economic squeeze, to favor pinprick military raids, to ignore what some intelligence sources report is fresh evidence that the Sandinistas are reducing their support of Salvadoran guerrillas, to throw our weight quietly against those Honduran colonels interested in border accommodation with Nicaragua, to use negotiations not to reach agreement but to keep the Sandinistas off balance, and so on.
My own view is that any policy that requires the United States to lean on dirty tricks, Argentine or American, is flawed. It runs against history and sense alike and costs us the basis on which we might reasonably expect other countries to help us stop Managua's meddling in El Salvador. Our legitimate objectives in the region-- supporting friendly armed forces, building up pluralistic political forces--can be embraced in public. If we have lost Argentina's secret helping hand in Central America, good riddance.