President Obama's recent visit to Argentina demonstrated two things. First, that when it comes to the tango, he is not a great dancer. And second, while the United States likes to lecture other countries about past sins, it refuses to reflect deeply on its own.
The visit generated considerable controversy in Argentina because it came just as the country was observing the 40th anniversary of a coup. In 1976, the Argentine military seized the government again after less than three chaotic years of civilian rule. It was a bitter commemoration since, once in power, the generals dealt with the terrorism that plagued the country by arresting anyone that looked like a leftist, torturing them and throwing them out of airplanes over the ocean.
A visit to a memorial of the victims of that "dirty war" prompted the President to admit the United States was slow to speak out on the atrocities committed. In his remarks, the President said "it takes courage for a society to address uncomfortable truths about the darker parts of its past. Confronting crimes committed by our own leaders, by our own people, that can be divisive and frustrating. But it's essential to moving forward to building a peaceful and prosperous future in a country that respects the rights of all of its citizens."
That lecture is something the President should not just give abroad. If a similar message were uttered at home it might help Americans not only understand the past, but also more seriously contemplate the present.
The reaction of the U.S. government to the coup reflected not just a lack of speed. Although he denies it, there is evidence that Henry Kissinger gave the generals a green light to proceed. The Carter administration did protest the human rights abuses, but then the Reagan administration rewarded those who committed them. It paid millions of dollars to the Argentine military to teach their skills to the Contras in Central America.
Former CIA officer Duane Clarridge wrote in his memoir about how he visited Buenos Aires in 1981 to call on the military president. Clarridge boasts that he was treated like a visiting head of state as he swilled whiskey with the general and convinced him to take tens of millions of dollars from the CIA to have his officers train the Contras. Clarridge describes the Argentine military as knowing a lot about urban guerrilla warfare because of their "successful and professional" operations against terrorists in their country. He tries to excuse their hiring by claiming the Contras would be instructed to respect the civilian population and avoid hitting any economic targets.
Argentina did face a grave threat from leftist terrorists in the mid-1970s. The inability of civilian government to do anything about was why many welcomed the coup. But the military is always a blunt instrument and their solution to the terrorism problem resulted in the murder of at least 9,000 Argentines.
Those crimes are something Argentina is still trying to deal with today. Thanks to DNA testing, some Argentines in their thirties are learning that the people that raised them were not only not really their parents, but their parents' killers.
The relationship with the Argentine military that Clarridge helped establish was so cozy that they expected the United States not to object when they invaded the Falklands the next year. And despite Clarridge's attempt to sanitize the results of the training program, the Contras neither respected civilian nor avoided economic targets. State Department briefings provided to Secretary Shultz pointed out that, the Contras "continued to strike lightly defended infrastructure targets, blowing up electrical towers" and that their "tactics of striking at economic and infrastructure targets have worsened Nicaragua's economic situation."
So it is not just the Argentines who need to reflect on the past and consider the context of the time and its implications for the present. America's embracing murderers in Latin America in the 1980's was justified as necessary to fight Communism.
This is not just ancient history since it has its parallel today. The use of torture and the remote control assassination of American citizens who have not been charged with a crime is justified as necessary to fight terrorism.
Whether past or present, the real victims in such struggles are America's supposed values. But it might take a future visit from the president of Argentina to point that out since, in today's super-heated political rhetoric, fear mongering has trumped rationality.