Poet and philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." President Obama is not ignorant, so it is hard to understand his stance in the newly-inflamed dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Nothing would be more wounding to Britain’s national self-respect – and nothing more guaranteed to bring down a British Prime Minister – than the loss of the Falklands. The Islands were won back eighteen years ago against great odds and with the loss of many lives. Argentina later, more or less, let the islanders live in peace.
Now, though, the Falklands are back in the news. Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is almost hourly raising the stakes. For its part, the US Administration has loftily declared its “neutrality” in the dispute, graciously offers “mediation”, and dangles a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Naturally, the Argentines regard all this as the equivalent of a diplomatic green light.
British foreign policy was once described by the Tory Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, as being “to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions.” Much the same might be said of American foreign policy under President Obama, with one significant exception – that the US boathook is nowadays, more often than not, jabbed hard into a close friend’s eye. The Poles and Czechs have already had the treatment. And Britain’s eye is now hurting badly, with its nose decidedly out of joint.
Mr Obama clearly has strong feelings about what Third World (and liberal American) opinion regards as post-colonialism. And he does not, it is widely admitted, think much of the US-UK “Special Relationship.” Instead, he somewhat masochistically prefers to endure the public snubs of hostile authoritarians and the insults of Leftist demagogues. But even the charismatic leader of a superpower should tread gently when it comes to an important ally’s interests, while both powers are fighting a make-or-break war in a distant continent.
The dysfunctional government in Buenos Aires may in many respects be a joke. But its sharp escalation of tension over the Falklands is a serious matter. The occasion has been the start of serious offshore exploration of the potentially oil- and gas-rich Falklands sea-bed. The excuse is, naturally, the contested question of sovereignty over the Falklands and its associated territories.
But the principal reason for the dispute occurring now is the appalling state of Argentina itself. The country is a beautiful, decaying monument to misgovernment. In the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, it is rated a less than proud 23rd of 29 South and Central American states. To mix metaphors somewhat, Argentina is an aspirant First World country relegated to a Banana Republic that does not even grow bananas.
To this the two Kirchner presidents (husband, Nestor, then wife, Cristina, and if plans go well, husband again next year) have made a significant contribution. They have seized the country’s pension funds, dissipated its currency reserves, bankrupted its farmers, manipulated private contracts, politicised regulation, harassed the judiciary, and greatly enriched themselves and their friends in the process.
Having systematically mismanaged, despoiled and socialised since 2003, they are now very unpopular. Mrs Kirchner’s approval rating (20 per cent) is below the inflation rate. The Kirchner combine’s best hope of staying in power is, as with other discredited regimes, to shift the political focus from domestic to foreign affairs. Hence the Falklands/Malvinas crisis. Much as with the military Junta back in 1982, in fact.
But there the similarity ends. The Argentine military regime was a thoroughly unpleasant one. Unlike Pinochet’s Chile, it could not even run the economy. It did, though, have the merit in American eyes at the time of acting as a bulwark against communism at an important stage in the Cold War, not just in the southern cone of South America but by contributions in Central America.
So it made some sense for the Reagan Administration to hesitate before declaring open support for Britain – much as Margaret Thatcher disliked the delay. It also, though, made sense to come down, first covertly and then openly, on Britain’s side. Not just loyalty, but clear national interest required support for a vital ally, and President Reagan gave it.
The world is, of course, different now. But the main difference, in this case, is not in the calculus of American interest in relations with Britain but with Argentina. Britain is still America’s main ally when and where it counts, as in Afghanistan today.
Yes: Britain’s defences are depleted and its stance on security cooperation sometimes shaky. The press is full of stories that America’s public distance in the Falklands business is pay-back for British failure to protect CIA intelligence in the Binyam Mohamed case. If so, that is childish. It is the British courts, not the government, which are the problem – something Americans should easily understand.
In any case, in the real world we must work with our allies, rather than re-invent them. Furthermore, with a Conservative Government still likely in Britain this summer, it pays to be patient in the hope of better collaboration.
The real change, though, relates to Argentina. No doubt White House liberals are pleased that the Latin American military governments have gone. But they should be – but apparently aren’t – extremely worried about the hemispheric shift into a demagogic, statist and viscerally anti-American camp. Significantly, Argentina has received full throated support from President Chavez of Venezuela, before whose clones the US State Department quails. The weaker that American policy is in dealing with the Chavez bloc, the greater the threat of war throughout the region – including the Falklands.
Which brings to consideration one other factor that has changed since 1982. Then the Falkland Islands could not be defended from London, and were lost to invading Argentinian forces. They could only be retaken – and were so by sending a naval task force eight thousand miles into the treacherous South Atlantic. That probably wouldn’t happen now, but not for the reasons some suggest.
Britain’s navy is, indeed, smaller. But, far more important as a counterweight, the Islands are well defended with a sizeable permanent garrison, ships on station and significant air power. Above all, the transformation of the old Falklands airstrip into a major facility for rapid reinforcement of the garrison has also transformed Britain’s ability to respond. In the meantime, Britain’s submarines could – again – inflict terrible damage to an Argentine sea-born force.
One would like to think that these facts were obvious enough to dissuade any thought of attack. But there is no accounting for political machismo. Laughing at Britain – indeed laughing at gringos of all descriptions – is in Latin America a popular sport. If ridicule topples into revenge, such sports can become dangerous. And that, of course, is why Washington’s foolishness in allowing today’s Argentine provocations to multiply unchecked is so worrying. It suggests a fundamental inability to think through the consequence of American actions.
The diplomatic factors are not, in fact, too complicated. The United States has no need to state a definite position on sovereignty over the Falklands. But nor does it need to signal that it is up for grabs. Britain’s claim is eminently respectable. It is based on continuous occupation since 1833 and on the expressed wishes of the inhabitants. These are good arguments. But what the US should recognise is that they are, in the end, irrelevant.
The Falklands cost over 250 British lives to secure, and the Falklanders and their Islands will not be given up. Full stop. British blood has now consecrated British identity, and Washington should grasp that. So, in recognition of reality, US policy should be discouraging Argentina, pressuring it to negotiate on questions of oil exploration and other secondary issues, and warning it, privately and if necessary publicly, of the terrible consequence of going to the brink.
With a different US Administration, one might have expected such a policy by reason of past history and shared values. But it makes equal sense as serving America’s national interest, for two reasons. The first is general: namely that Britain is a significant ally and Argentina is merely an insignificant nuisance. Mrs Kirchner explained it quite succinctly to the foreign press: “We are not in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor do we want to be. We are only in missions in Cyprus and Haiti – that is to say, we have no militaristic vocation (tenemos una vocacion no belicista).” Muy bien. But the Spanish equivalent of “Hell, no, we won’t go!” is not so good a declaration when danger threatens.
As it now does from international Jihadism – which leads to the second, specific, reason why America’s equidistance over the Falklands dispute is ill-advised. Should it suddenly become necessary to reinforce the Falklands against an imminent or actual Argentine attack, Britain’s ten thousand troops would immediately be recalled from Afghanistan. It would be done by any British government, and the politicians would be acting under overwhelming public pressure. If that should ever happen, Argentina will not be crying – but Washington may.