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.

However, statements made by top officials in the Obama administration, and by Obama himself, suggest that under his presidency the U.S. position has tilted in favor of Argentina.  Hillary Clinton set the tone in March 2010, at a press conference with Kirchner during a visit to Buenos Aires.  Asked about the Falklands, she said: "We would like to see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve the issues between them across the table in a peaceful, productive way.” John Kerry has taken much the same line. During his visit to Britain last month, Kerry said Washington would continue to urge “a peaceful resolution of this critical issue."

Obama took a similar position at last year’s Summit of the Americas, when he said he looked forward to Britain and Argentina continuing to "dialogue" on the issue.  This was the speech in which he referred to the Falklands as the Maldives, when he intended to call them by their Argentine name, Las Malvinas. The gaffe may have been harmless, but was illustrative of Obama’s lack of interest in the subject, beyond indulging the anti-imperialist sentiments of the numerous left-wing leaders present. And if Obama watchers such as Dinesh D'Souza are to be believed, Obama has issues with Britain's colonialist history, stemming from his father’s and grandfather’s experiences under British rule in Kenya, that would incline him towards siding with Argentina.

From Britain’s point of view, however, there are no "issues" that need to be resolved, and no need for it to "dialogue" with Argentina. The Falklands are British, and that’s the end of it, until and unless Argentina should decide to move against the islands. But Obama, Clinton, and now Kerry have all effectively said that Argentina has a legitimate grievance that Britain should acknowledge and address, and intimated that the current arrangement is not necessarily permanent and could be altered.

All things considered, it’s not hard to imagine, at some point in the future, the Obama administration backing a "resolution" to the Falklands dispute that would be more to Argentina’s liking than Britain’s -- perhaps shared sovereignty or some form of joint administration. In terms of foreign policy accomplishments, it wouldn’t exactly be solving the Israel-Palestine dispute, but it would be a feather in Obama’s and Kerry’s caps, and it would play well with the restive neighbors down south, as well as with Latino voters back home.

The administration’s reaction to the Falklands referendum result was predictably equivocal. A State Department spokeswoman said that, while the U.S. noted the outcome, “we obviously recognize that there are competing claims," and called on “all sides” to focus their efforts on a resolution.

The Falkland islanders’ resounding declaration of their desire to remain British is something of an embarrassment for Obama and Kerry, given their championing of self-determination for the peoples of Libya, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere. The proper U.S response would have been a statement to the effect that the people of the Falklands have made their wishes clear, and that Argentina should respect their decision and cease its efforts to intimidate the islanders and hamper the Falklands economy.

Instead, Obama and Kerry, like Clinton before him, would rather curry favor with the failing, corrupt, and bullying socialist regime in Buenos Aires, and with the rest of the region’s left-wing basket cases, than show solidarity with a country that has long been one of America’s closest allies.

In the long term, Argentina’s obsession with the Falklands will hopefully abate when its people decide to start electing responsible leaders who are more interested in tackling real problems than trying to distract them with nationalistic sideshows. In the short term, the situation remains volatile, and by accepting that Argentina has a case, and encouraging them to pursue it, the Obama administration is helping to keep the incompetent and unstable Kirchner in power. It's bad news for her country, and quite possibly for the Falklands -- because if Kirchner feels that the U.S. won't stand with Britain as it did when her country invaded in 1982, she might just be emboldened into doing something very stupid.