Obama Administration Equivocates on Pro-British Falklands Referendum

The people of the Falkland Islands, the tiny British overseas territory 300 miles off the east coast of Argentina, have voted to remain British subjects by a margin of 99.8 percent to 0.2 percent; the turnout was a remarkable 92 percent. Just three islanders voted no, and they haven’t been in a hurry to own up to the fact.

The referendum was intended to send a clear signal to Argentina, which also claims sovereignty over the islands, but the government in Buenos Aires has dismissed the result. Argentina invaded the islands in 1982, and Britain retook them after a 74-day war in which 255 British servicemen, 649 Argentines, and three islanders died.

Successive governments have maintained Argentina's claim on the Falklands in the years since the war, but tensions have increased recently as the country's president, Cristina Kirchner, has sought to use the issue to deflect attention from the country's growing economic problems caused by her socialist policies. Amid soaring inflation and slowing growth, Argentina has been fiddling with economic data in a bid to stop investors fleeing the country. However, there are signs that voters are beginning to see through Kirchner’s distraction strategy.

Argentina’s interest in the Falklands has been piqued by the discovery of what are thought to be considerable oil reserves in the waters around the islands, and it has threatened to sue banks and other firms who cooperate with oil companies exploring in the area. The threats are part of a wider campaign of economic intimidation; Buenos Aires has also barred merchant vessels and cruise ships that have visited the islands from docking in Argentine ports.

The recent demise of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez won’t help matters. Chavez backed Argentina’s claim to the islands, and his death has created a vacancy for a paranoid and reckless populist to pose as the leader of the Latin American nations and take up the torch of "anti-imperialism." It's a position Kirchner would no doubt like, and one that she’s entirely suited to -- and manufacturing a confrontation with Britain over the Falklands would embellish her resumé.

While Argentina’s rhetoric has become increasingly heated, a repeat of the 1982 invasion is unthinkable. Back then the islands were defended by just 70 Royal Marines; there was no air support, and just a lone naval ice patrol vessel on station. Now the 3,000 islanders are protected by 1,200 troops, anti-aircraft missiles, and four state-of-the-art Typhoon fighters. A destroyer and other warships patrol the surrounding waters, and a nuclear-powered submarine is believed to be within striking distance of the islands at all times (the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by a British sub was a pivotal moment in the 1982 war). Argentina’s armed forces, meanwhile, have been severely depleted by budget cuts, and its air force is still flying the same aircraft it had in 1982.

Times have changed, and a new Falklands conflict would likely be fought in the meeting rooms of the United Nations and the courtroom of world opinion, with Argentina enlisting the "international community" in what it frames as an anti-imperialist crusade. It’s a strategy Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman hinted at on a recent visit to London, when he said the world was “understanding more and more that this is a colonial issue," and claimed Britain would be forced by international pressure to hand back the islands within 20 years.

But that’s not to say Argentina wouldn’t try something to bring matters to a head, perhaps by flying an aircraft close enough to the islands to get shot at. Alternatively, it’s not hard to imagine Kirchner organizing a stunt along the lines of the Gaza flotilla, and sending a boatload of "peace activists" towards the islands. Such a move would attract worldwide media attention, and would likely spark a confrontation with the Royal Navy. An international outcry would follow, with assorted tyrants and thugs from Latin America, Iran and elsewhere lining up at the UN to condemn Britain’s "colonialist aggression." As Israel has learned over the years, once hostilities have broken out, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, or who’s the aggressor and who’s the victim; it’s about upholding nebulous ideas of "fairness" and "justice," and for the diplomats it’s all about making a deal, however bad. Anything for a quiet life.

The United States, in its capacity both as the regional superpower and a historic ally of Britain, would play a key role should tensions escalate. And, from Britain’s point of view, the indicators coming out of Washington these days are not encouraging.

The official U.S. position has long been that it recognizes de facto UK administration of the Islands, but takes no position on the sovereignty claims of Britain and Argentina. That was the case in 1982, but Ronald Reagan was instinctively supportive of Britain, and of his friend and ally Margaret Thatcher, and strongly opposed Argentina’s aggression. Reagan initially allowed Secretary of State Alexander Haig and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to pursue a diplomatic solution; but when Argentine dictator General Galtieri refused to withdraw his forces, and it became clear that Thatcher would not back down, he authorized Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to provide material and intelligence help to Britain, including, crucially, the latest Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.