BUENOS AIRES — They make an odd couple, Carlos and George.
Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem: shortish, dapper and flamboyant, a provincial populist. President George Bush: nearly a head taller, conventional, a pillar of the Establishment. And yet the two have a "very loyal, very sincere friendship," Menem remarked when Bush visited Argentina in December.
Loyal and sincere as it may be, the friendship also fits into Menem's policy of cultivating close relations between Argentina and the United States for pragmatic reasons. Menem says cooperation between the two countries can help boost Argentina into the First World.
In other words, to become rich and powerful, it helps to have a rich and powerful friend.
Menem's opposition, including dissidents in his own Peronist Party, have attacked his outspokenly pro-U.S. policy frequently. By itself, the issue does not appear to constitute a threat to Menem's political standing in Argentina, where anti-Americanism is not a strong or widespread sentiment. But some critics do accuse him of forsaking national interests by taking a subservient stance toward Washington.
Andres Fontana, a prominent political scientist with the private Center for Studies of the State and Society, calls Menem's "enchantment" with the United States exaggerated. "He not only does what they ask and what they demand, but he goes beyond that and adds what he supposes they want," Fontana said. "It seems to me a loss of dignity."
Historically, Argentina has had closer ties to Europe than to the United States. After World War II, when the United States was seeking to assert influence here, populist leader Juan D. Peron openly defied American Ambassador Spruille Braden. Some historians say the campaign slogan "Braden or Peron" helped Peron win presidential elections.
A quarter-century later, when Peron was preparing another run for the presidency, he again used the United States as a foil for his nationalism. "As long as we do not free ourselves from the Yankees, who are crushing and squeezing us, we will not solve the economic problem," he said.
Menem, a provincial leader of the Peronist Party, took office in July, 1989. Argentina's economic problems were worse than ever, and it was clear that the new president would need more than Peron-style populism to solve them.
Turning his back on Peronist unions that had long supported his party, Menem adopted economic policies dear to the hearts of U.S. Republicans: balancing the budget, privatizing state enterprises, paying foreign debts, opening the national market to free international trade and investment.
Menem was offering to make Argentina a staunch political and economic ally of the United States, an example for Latin America that Washington could be proud of. In effect, Fontana said, Menem traded the Peronist power base for U.S. support.
The country's turn goes beyond just words and economics.
Argentina sent two warships to the Persian Gulf during the clash with Iraq. They were the only Latin American military forces deployed there in support of the United States and its allies.
In March, reportedly after a personal call from Bush, Menem ordered the Argentine delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to vote in favor of a special investigation of conditions in Cuba. The vote reversed previous Argentine policy and broke ranks with other Latin American countries.
And in another decision that complied with U.S. wishes, Menem ordered the Argentine air force to dismantle a project for producing a battlefield missile, the Condor II.
Those and other gestures have grated against the nationalist sentiments of many Argentines. Raul Alfonsin, Argentina's previous president, has called his successor's policy toward Washington "unconditional subordination."
"For the Americans, whoever behaves like a slave has been treated as such," Alfonsin said, echoing a phrase by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes.
Retired Brigadier Ernesto Crespo, who was commander of the air force under Alfonsin, said Argentina would be a "banana republic" if it deactivated its missile program to please the United States. The Defense Ministry punished Crespo for his remark with 30 days of house arrest.
Menem denies that his policy sacrifices national interests. "It is not less national to seek integration with the most powerful country on Earth, obviously the United States," he wrote in a book titled "United States, Argentina and Carlos Menem." And he denied that his policy subordinates Buenos Aires to Washington. "To be partners. Not dependents. This is the guiding idea."
In fact, the Menem government has stood its ground with the Bush Administration on at least one issue. Argentina, a major grain exporter, delivered an "energetic protest" in May over plans to sell American wheat to Brazil at subsidized prices. The protest, however, did not stop the wheat sales.