On February 10, a U.S., military C-17 touched down in Buenos Aires. On board were eight special forces soldiers and a medic en route to provide a hostage rescue training course for the police of Buenos Aires. Little did they know they would be stepping into a diplomatic ambush.
In the aircraft’s cargo hold were items to be used for training purposes. Argentine customs and law enforcement officials charged that many items on the aircraft did not correspond to the manifest submitted by our embassy in Buenos Aires.
Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, a former journalist and ambassador to the U.S., spent a day at the airport examining the seized U.S. materials. He was quick to direct an accusatory finger at the U.S. Over Twitter and in the press, Timerman hinted darkly that the U.S. was knowingly importing illegal items such as communications gear, dangerous arms, and psychotropic drugs for sinister purposes. On earlier occasions, Timerman has claimed that the U.S. teaches torture and coups in police training courses in El Salvador. Other Argentine officials claimed that the U.S. was sneaking in equipment to eavesdrop on senior Argentine officials.
Opined Anibal Fernandez, cabinet chief to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: “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.”
The U.S. State Department admitted that while all its paperwork might not have been in apple-pie order, no harm was intended. In dispute are “non-serialized replacement barrels” for machine guns, a less-than-detailed listing of communications gear, and small amounts of morphine in the team’s medical kit. The Argentine government also seized such illicit items as “Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), batteries, clothing, office supplies, coolers for beverages, folding chairs, candy, and the U.S. team members’ personal gear.”
Piecing together a scenario of hostile intent toward Argentina from this motley selection of items will not be easy. Nevertheless, the Argentine foreign ministry still demands a fuller explanation from the U.S. and an official apology, dragging the incident deeper into the diplomatic mud.
“Nothing to apologize for,” responded U.S. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley on February 16. What “might have been small technical issues in how certain material was manifested, [the Argentines] could have easily been resolved at a working level. We do not know why Argentina decided to make a federal case out of this.”
Later Crowley tweeted, “We are surprised that Argentina has chosen not to resolve a simple dispute involving training equipment. And we still want our stuff back.”
Again on February 24, the matter was raised. “We simply do not understand why this issue has not yet been resolved.”
State Department officials are still trying to delve deeper into the wounded psyche of the Argentine leaders. Was it anger over recent WikiLeaks or the failure of President Obama to select Argentina as a stop in his March Latin America trip that led to the current incident? Or is it a sign of gathering angst over the upcoming elections in October, at which time the leftist, Peronist Kirchner may face stiff opposition challenge from Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, the boss of the police force on the receiving end of the U.S. training course?
For now, the diplomatic tempest continues brewing in the Argentine teapot. Timerman has burnished his reputation for anti-Americanism and proven he will not kow-tow to the U.S. As wild allegations fly, broader U.S.–Argentine security cooperation is placed on hold or is altogether in jeopardy.
In dealing with Argentina’s petty mugging, the Obama Administration has demonstrated a bit of the spine it has not displayed in other, more turbulent parts of the world.