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New U.S. Arms for South America
Is a Bad Idea



LONDON-- We should indeed "cry for Argentina," in fact for all of Latin America, when the news, apparently imminent, is announced that the Clinton administration has decided to remove long-standing U.S. restrictions on selling high-tech weapons to South American countries.

Just at the moment that South America, after years of slithering and sliding, has finally got itself out of the mud of economic malaise, its spendthrift generals supposedly relegated to the outer fringes of decision making, this change in American policy could throw the balance of power between civilian and military in exactly the wrong direction. The last thing the generals need to be tempted by are expensive items of once forbidden fruit.

Take Argentina--although only in degree is it possessor of a worse record in destabilising military interference than its neighbours. The last time western arms salesmen were regularly satisfying every whim of South American generals the country picked a quite unnecessary fight with Britain over ownership of the off-shore Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Nevermind that it was, as one astute observer of the time noted, "two bald men fighting over a comb," it was a high-tech war, only surpassed, quite a few years later, by the Gulf War. I remember a small group of us being briefed in London by the rather well-informed deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Colonel Jonathan Alford. "Given Argentina's massive armoury," he warned, "with its state-of-the-art French Exocet missiles together with its geographical advantages the outcome is going to swing on electronics. On this Britain might just have the edge." It did, just.

It was a futile war that won Argentina nothing but shame. Its only virtue was to totally discredit Argentina's military junta whose bloated military budget was out of proportion to other government spending, way out of line with the country's economic resources and one of the major contributors to rapid inflation and government mismanagement that had been Argentina's lot since the days of Juan and Evita Peron. There was, in short, a lot to cry about.

The Latin American world has changed beyond all recognition the last few years. Military regimes have fallen by the wayside, although in Peru, Colombia and Chile they still wield a disproportionate influence and hold on to a dangerous degree of autonomy. Democracy is now widespread, if in many cases the institutions of government remain imperfectly formed. Economic self-discipline, after years of painful adjustment, is today producing dividends that offer the continent the chance of doing what it had long promised itself, of being as successful as east Asia. (Chile already is and it shouldn't be forgotten that until a decade ago Brazil held number one spot as the fastest growing economy of the century, even ahead of Taiwan.)

One important sign--both facilitator and consequence--of the maturing of Latin America has been the fall in military budgets. South Americans this century, unlike other regions of the world, have more talked about war than actually practised it--Brazil, its largest country, hasn't been to war since 1870. Now at last this is showing up in the budget statistics--even the need to posture is being shelved.

Thus, one assumes, President Bill Clinton must have very good reasons, outside the need to make money for the American arms industry, to upset this apple-cart. But what are they?

The guerrilla insurgencies that during the Cold War provided a national security rationale for a military dominance have in the majority of cases ended. One kidnapping in Peru by a marginal group does not a mighty insurrection make. The rapid dismantling of tariff barriers and the pace of economic growth is making "hard" political boundaries rather "soft."

So why then should South America be hungry for new arms? The White House spokesman earlier this month answered it this way: "The arrival of democracy in all but one of the countries in the region changes the environment in which some of our existing policies might apply"--which is about a contrary, not to say facile, answer as one could get.

Having engineered for themselves such a profound change in their political and economic culture the last thing the South Americans need are super war machines, perhaps (as now with Thailand), even Amraams, the over-the-horizon, air-to-air missile.

Privately, most of the new-breed civilian leaders want to be relieved of pressures from their militaries, not have to watch their imaginations being fed by shiny things to buy. All the continent's leaders, to a greater or lesser extent, are struggling to exercise their authority over the military. The balance on their internal see-saw has only recently tipped in their favor. Only gradually are they building up the muscle to reduce bloated state budgets, of which the military have had more than their fair share. This, most of them know, is the only way to enable deep-rooted structural reform that will reduce inflation (which invariably hurts the doer most), attract foreign investment and allow an overdue step up in basic services, safe-drinking water, sanitation, health provision, education and housing, that the poorest desperately need.

Mr. Clinton needs to ask himself on which side in the struggle between civilian sobriety and military profligacy is he actually on?


January 22, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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