THE ADMINISTRATION is considering the re sumption of arms sales to Argentina, double victim of an American ban--first for its assault on the lives and liberties of its citizens during its civil war in the 1970s and then for its attack on the Falkland Islands in 1982. There would be a logic to the resumption, but it is the administration's logic--not the logic that a broad range of Americans could support.
The case for resumption only begins with Washington's interest in knitting up the hemispheric ties it severely strained by finally taking the British side in the Falklands war. The core of the case is ideological. By administration theory, Argentina is the sort of authoritarian government that, notwithstanding its internal defects, deserves favor for being more or less open to amelioration, as totalitarian communist governments generally are not, and for being in any event anti-communist.
Argentina, moreover, has unquestionably cleaned up its act in the last two years. It has stopped adding to the thousands of citizens who were made to "disappear" in the regime's war against real and imagined "subversives," and in October it intends to hold its first general elections in 10 years. If sticks are laid on repressive regimes and carrots are not awarded to improving ones, Reaganites argue, what incentive do they have to improve?
The argument, however, is too narrow. The fact is that since the rout of its campaign to "recover" what all Argentines regard as the Malvinas, the military government has pledged itself anew to regain the islands, and it has been pouring the country's shrinking foreign reserves into new arms, including the redoubtable French Exocet missiles. Continued American abstinence would not in itself deny Buenos Aires the arms that may yet lead it to try a second fling, but the United States should not give symbolic endorsement to such a campaign by selling even the relatively innocuous items it is said to have in mind.
The main reason to hold off, however, arises from the tremendous political legitimacy that will be conferred, in Latin minds, when the United States-- and only the United States--provides arms to a Latin military government. The additional risk is that Argentina's generals and admirals, with such a boon, might be tempted to swerve from the electoral path they were compelled to take in the wake of the humiliation they inflicted on their country last year. The military, faced with a real but limited internal security threat in the 1970s, overreacted grotesquely and brought upon themselves permanent shame. It is not up to the United States to rehabilitate them. Their reputation and their fate must be left to the Argentine people.