Yesterday Bryan Preston covered Barack Obama’s remarks on the Falkland Islands at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia. When asked about Argentina’s claim to the British-ruled islands, Obama said the U.S. would continue to observe a “neutral” stance, adding that “this is not something that we typically intervene in.”
Taking a leaf out of the Sean Penn guide to diplomacy, he also attempted to refer to the Islands by their Argentinian name, Las Malvinas. Obama’s response attracted little interest here in Britain, and while the Smartest President Ever mistakenly called the islands the Maldives, I didn’t find Obama’s intention to use “Malvinas” particularly troubling. While it’s possible to interpret that particular remark as supporting Argentina, perhaps he was simply trying to be diplomatic by using the Latin American name in the presence of Latin American hosts; it’s likely that if he mentioned the islands during a speech in Britain he’d refer to them as the Falklands.
I do, however, have a problem with Obama framing America’s position with regards to the Falklands dispute as “neutral.” This appears to be a different thing to supporting the status quo, which is British sovereignty over the islands so long as that remains the wish of the 3,000-plus inhabitants.
As I’ve written previously, it’s unlikely that Argentina will move against the Falklands in the foreseeable future; Britain has beefed up its military presence on the islands considerably since the 1982 war, which saw it retake the islands after Argentina mounted a surprise invasion. Argentine president Cristina Kirchner’s current rhetoric on the sovereignty dispute is designed primarily to distract attention from looming economic problems at home.
But Obama appears to be suggesting that if Argentina did attempt to invade the islands again, he would maintain American’s “neutral” stance, and that can only give encouragement to the Argentines and their rabble-rousing leader. Kirchner apparently fancies herself as Hugo Chavez in drag, and with Venezuela backing Argentina’s claim to the Falklands she seems determined to pursue the Chavez model of belligerence abroad and ruinous socialism at home, having just announced plans to nationalize the country’s largest oil and gas company. Re-election for Obama in November would ensure Kirchner a sympathetic ear for further post-colonial whining, and likely encourage further trouble-making.
Obama’s remarks also appear to be something of a snub to British Prime Minister David Cameron, coming just a month after the two leaders engaged in an orgy of mutual admiration during Cameron’s state visit to the US – although you won’t hear the star-struck Cameron say as much.
It’s no surprise to see Obama appearing to side with an aspiring South American dictator rather than a friend and ally who’s committed to democracy and the rule of law; after all, if you’re happy to sell your own country down the river to a hostile rival, as the president suggested in his overheard remarks on missile defence to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, then throwing an ostensible ally under the bus isn’t going to give you too many sleepless nights. The only question is to what extent his position is dictated by the need to appeal to Hispanic voters in the upcoming election campaign, and how much it’s a product of his anti-imperialist, liberation theology-infused worldview.
While Obama’s stance is predictable, it should be noted that Republican support for Britain over the Falklands isn’t a given. As this account by John O’Sullivan, based on recently released documents, recalls, when Argentina invaded in 1982 the Reagan administration was initially divided over how to respond, with “Latinistas” including Jeane Kirkpatrick and Alexander Haig backing Argentina, and Reagan himself initially favouring a negotiated settlement. However, when war became inevitable the US threw its support behind Britain, providing intelligence and the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, which claimed several Argentinian aircraft.
As Britain and Argentina mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war, it would be reassuring to hear Mitt Romney come out on the campaign trail, or in a foreign policy debate, in support of British sovereignty, and make clear which side America would take in the event of hostilities during a Romney presidency. It might help to dissuade Argentina from doing something reckless, and more pressingly it would provide another clear distinction between Romney and the dictator-coddling Obama who, not for the first time, has shown disloyalty to an ally bordering on treachery.