A peculiar kerfuffle between Argentina and the United States has broken out. The New York Times' Alexei Barrionuevo summarizes the standoff:
Argentina has accused the United States military of trying to bring guns and surveillance equipment into the country under the cover of supplying a police training course, creating the latest diplomatic rift between the countries.
Argentine customs officials seized undeclared equipment on Thursday, including what they described as machine guns and ammunition, spy equipment and drugs like morphine, the Argentine Foreign Ministry said Sunday.
The equipment was on a United States Air Force cargo plane carrying material for a training course that an American military team had been invited to provide to Argentina’s federal police.
Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said Argentina would file an official protest in Washington and ask for a joint investigation into why the Air Force attempted to violate Argentine law by sending “material camouflaged inside an official shipment from the United States,” the ministry said in a news release.
“Argentine law must be complied with by all, without exception,” Mr. Timerman said he had told Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, after Mr. Valenzuela complained about how Argentine customs officials dealt with the cargo, the Foreign Ministry said.
Virginia Staab, a State Department spokeswoman, called the actions by Argentine officials “puzzling and disturbing” and said American officials were seeking explanations from the Argentine government.
The plane carried experts and training equipment that had been “fully coordinated with and approved by” Argentina’s government, Ms. Staab said. She said Argentine authorities conducted “an unusual and unannounced search of the aircraft’s cargo, seizing certain items.”
Ms. Staab said the confiscated equipment included one rifle, a first-aid kit, ready to eat meals, a secure communications device similar to a GPS, encrypted communications equipment, tables and personnel foot lockers that contained helmets. She said American officials were seeking “the immediate return of all items retained by the government of Argentina.”
Argentine officials described the seized material as including equipment for “intercepting communications, various sophisticated and powerful GPS devices, technological elements containing codes labeled secret and a trunk full of expired medicine.”
Now, ordinarily, this sounds like one of those incidents where some errant paperwork and a whole lot of mistrust has escalated things way beyond the level they should be. The Wall Street Journal's Ken Parks and Julian Barnes add some context, however, that suggests something weird is going on:
Argentine officials say some of the materials weren't included in documents submitted by the U.S. Embassy before the plane's arrival, a charge U.S. officials adamantly deny.
"I want to emphasize the need for our equipment to be returned promptly by the government of Argentina regardless of what motivated this inexplicable behavior," Paul Stockton, the assistant secretary of defense for the Americas, said on Tuesday.
Argentine officials, however, responded the U.S. needed to learn that Argentina has its own laws that need respect.
"Just imagine what would have happened if an Argentine aircraft had taken the same kind of material to the United States. [The Argentines] would all be in Guantanamo in orange overalls," Anibal Fernandez, President Cristina Kirchner's cabinet chief, said in an interview with local broadcaster Radio La Red.
The training had been scheduled at the request of the Argentine government, and was meant to be a follow-up to a September 2009 exercise, according to Frank Mora, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs.
"This was all coordinated at the highest levels of the Argentine government," Mr. Mora said in an interview. "So it caught us very much by surprise, the way the government reacted."
When the plane arrived on Thursday, it was met at the airport by senior Argentine officials, including Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who supervised the seizure of the cargo as U.S. officials looked on. (emphases added)
Those two bolded sections lead to two different conclusions. The presence of the Foreign Minister suggests that this wasn't some paperwork screw-up but something with a clear political motivation (rthough it's far from clear whether the entire Argentinian government knows what the heck is going on). The actual motivation is far from clear to me, however -- I'm just gonna assume this isn't an effort by the Argentines to muck up their Paris Club negotiations. This blog heartily welcomes Latin American experts to provide some explanation in the comments section.
For me, however, the more interesting point is the first bolded jab at Guantanamo. It's a horses**t allegation, but it's a horses**t allegation that lots of people make when they talk about the United States (Julian Assange and his defenders have repeatedly averred that Assange would be sent to Gitmo if he were ever to enter the United States, which is an absurd premise on both political and legal grounds).
Here's the thing, though -- is it possible for an American policymaker rebut this kind of wisecrack? There really isn't a good response, because Gitmo is now one of those toxic terms like "bailout" or "Snooki" that can't be undone.
The politics of closing Guantanamo are pretty hopeless, which means it ain't gonna close anytime soon. As a result, this is going to be a sore that continues to fester and continue to erode America's soft power. Maybe that's not worth the political capital required to resolve the situation -- but at least let's openly acknowledge the foreign policy hit.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.