A case of bravado vs. diplomacy

Val Ross April 26 1982

A case of bravado vs. diplomacy

Val Ross April 26 1982

A case of bravado vs. diplomacy


Val Ross

In downtown Buenos Aires, the people were singing the old, half-forgotten nationalist songs. From the balcony of his palace, President Leopoldo Galtieri harangued the multitudes, his arms upraised in a familiar gesture of victory. Not since the days of the dictator Juan Perón had the Argentine people, left and right, been so united. Even the mothers circling the Plaza de Mayo, keeping vigil for the vanished victims of the junta’s neo-Nazi security squads, joined the exultant expression of common purpose and patriotic resentment. “We are with our country,” they chanted proudly.

That forthright expression of national pride was reciprocated by Argentina’s normally phlegmatic British adversaries. As the British armada swept into the South Atlantic beyond Ascension Island, the jingoistic mood at home left little doubt that barring a diplomatic solution that satisfied Albion’s damaged pride, the fleet was on a collision course with war. The high state of readiness for a fight, together with the steadily narrowing gap between the combatants, hurried U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s continuing peace mission into an eleventh-

hour scramble for a solution.

Haig’s frustrating week climaxed in a marathon session with Argentina’s leaders. But there was little sign of success. “We don’t know how long Mr. Haig could be here,” Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez said. “Maybe a week, maybe a month.” Galtieri and his foreign minister were said to be offering a formula that included immediate mutual withdrawal plus third-party government for the islands for a year to allow time for negotiations. But Whitehall’s unofficial view was that the junta would have to go a lot further than that before the dogs of war were leashed.

The last-ditch talks in Buenos Aires were the high point in a week during which a solution to the conflict grew ever more elusive. At the same time, both Britain and Argentina raised the war stakes. In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher doubled the airstrike capability of the Falklands task force and added a second assault ship to an armada that—with 23 requisitions from the merchant fleet—was estimated to have swollen to about 50 vessels. In Buenos Aires the junta’s escalating war rhetoric was punctuated by the roar of an airlift of up to 100 flights a day reinforcing the islands. The Ar-

gentine navy, too, was on the move again after its week-long retreat to port. The risks were rising—and not only for Galtieri and Thatcher. An outbreak of sniping in Washington provided a discordant counterpoint to Haig’s hemispheric wanderings, threatening to weaken his authority at a crucial moment in the diplomacy.

The start of Haig’s week was hardly more propitious. After 12 hours of talks with Thatcher, when he delivered an Argentine offer for conditional withdrawal of troops, Haig telephoned Buenos Aires to firm up final arrangements. But he was in for a sharp disappointment. By then, Costa Mendez had changed his ground. As a result, Haig returned to Washington to forge a new strategy to cope with both sides’ susceptibilities—and with Thatcher’s tough approach.

Then, last Thursday, Argentina came up with hints that negotiations might usefully resume. But in Buenos Aires at week’s end, Haig’s confusing schedule of cancelled departures and sudden meetings suggested that the negotiators did not know where they wanted to go next.

For her part, a skeptical Thatcher warned the House of Commons, “Diplomatic efforts are more likely to succeed if matched by military strength.”

And British defence chiefs continued to plan for a long blockade. Analysis had revealed that with the oncoming southern winter, that would be the best way of weakening Argentine occupation forces in advance of a British invasion.

As military preparedness was stepped up, the British public’s resolve grew iron-plated. In a poll released by The Economist, the Thatcher government’s initial measures against Argentina—banning imports, freezing assets and dispatching the navy—continued to garner the approval of 80 per cent of the public. And a striking 25 per cent actually favored bombing Argentine military bases. More outrage greeted the news that three British journalists—among them Ian Mather, a frequent contributor to Maclean’s— have been imprisoned, and this week will face espionage charges. (A three-man team from CBC’s The Journal was also held in the port of Comodoro Rivadavia. The corporation’s chief of English-language services, Peter Herrndorf, said representations have been made to the Argentine government on their behalf by the external affairs department.)

Britannia’s muscle-flexing startled many observers. Robert Cox, the exiled

former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, noted, “My Latin friends say the British are acting just like the Argentinians!” At the same time, bravado in the Argentine capital grew at an equally frantic pace.

Then, the largely isolated Argentine military junta was encouraged by gestures of support from some South American neighbors. Its 223-plane air force was buttressed by Bolivia’s promise of air support and by the arrival of six Soviet-made jet fighters from Peru. At the same time, Brazil placed a naval squadron off its southern coast.

Still, although the military glitter dazzled the Argentine public, it did not brighten the public’s dim view of the government that launched the venture. Scattered booing greeted one Galtieri claim: that he was negotiating in his

rightful capacity as the “representative of the Argentine people.” And diplomatic backpedalling by Costa Mendez prompted speculation about fissures within the government.

Galtieri and Thatcher, however, were not the only politicians whose careers were on the line. In Washington, it was revealed that when news of the crisis first broke, Haig elbowed aside Reagan’s first choice for a peacemaker, Vice-President George Bush, an old rival (apparently Galtieri concurred, preferring to deal with a fellow general). But Haig’s attempt to consolidate his hold on U.S. foreign policy reactivated White House enmities, and embarrassing leaks proliferated. Not only did the U.S. public learn about the terms of Haig’s most recent proposal to the Argentines before Buenos Aires, but the press also revelled in gossip about Haig’s travel arrangements. He was said to have refused the windowless

jet that he was first offered, holding out for a VC-137 with its full complement of windows along with such other amenities as commodious sleeping quarters (Haig’s staff asserted that it also had better communications equipment). Such squabbles would lose their significance in the event of a successful outcome to Haig’s endeavors. But if his mission fails, they seem certain to destabilize an already shaky career.

Not all the stakes were personal, however. The state department was at pains to play down speculation that Washington has an interest in the Falkland Islands’ oil riches. It pointed out that the Falklands’ treacherous seas have sunk about 150 ships, and offshore depths reach almost a kilometre—a more forbidding prospect than the North Sea or Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. But last year a well drilled by Royal Dutch Shell just outside the 200-nauticalmile war zone yielded a test flow of 5,000 barrels per day. And the Inter American Development Bank believes that the area’s petroleum potential could range as high as 20 billion barrels.

If the stakes were high, however, so were the costs—and therein seemed to lie most hope for a settlement. British government spokesmen deny that the estimated $350-million bill to launch the biggest task force since the Second World War— g plus the $53-million monthly I bill for maintaining it—will halt 5 Britain’s burgeoning economic I recovery. But since the crisis

0 broke, the pound has dropped 3

1 cents and the London stock mar-

2 ket is off 4.5 per cent.

Argentina hurts even more. In

the past two weeks its frightened monied class has withdrawn more than $1 billion (U.S.) from Buenos Aires banks. With a $38-billion foreign debt that overshadows even Poland’s, Argentina urgently needs more overseas credit. But even the short-term loans from traditionally enthusiastic bankers have dried up until the crisis is resolved, and the European Community’s trade embargo also is a severe blow.

Still the manoeuvring continued, with the 1,800 Falkland Islanders held hostage by as many as 9,000 occupying Argentine troops. As both the British and American governments scrambled once more to adjust to a crisis ill-suited to their nuclear-based military—and to their Cold War analysis of global conflicts—the world was offered still another reminder of the fragility of international security.

Jane O'Hara

Carol Kennedy

William Lowther