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Obama Sending Wrong Message on the Falklands

I wrote yesterday about the Obama administration’s course correction in Burma, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showing signs the White House has begun to think strategically in Asia. But while that failure seems to be well on its way to being fixed, the administration has doubled down on another of its early foreign policy mistakes, and the results could be disastrous.

Robert C. O’Brien, a former American representative to the UN, argues today in The Diplomat that the Obama administration has again turned its back on the United Kingdom in its dispute with Argentina over the Falklands. This is a rather easy call–British sovereignty there is lawful and the clear choice of Falklands residents. But Argentina is stirring up trouble there once again, and O’Brien suggests Obama’s behavior is indefensible and will have consequences:

There’s a clear analogy between Argentina’s response to the U.K.’s defense cuts and what we can expect in the South China Sea and Persian Gulf from China and Iran, respectively, as massive sequestration cuts threaten to decimate the United States military. Indeed, the Obama administration announced this week that the U.S. Navy will decommission 7 Ticonderoga class cruisers and 2 amphibious warships in 2012 alone. There’s no doubt that Beijing, Tehran and even Moscow are watching the slashing of the U.S. defense budget with the same attention that Buenos Aires is paying to the decline of the Royal Navy.

Second, the Obama administration has made the United States an unreliable ally for our closest friends. Britain has been a stalwart ally of the U.S. in both Iraq and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the tremendous domestic political pressure on Labour and Conservative governments not to participate in those unpopular wars. However, in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for talks over the dispute and even appeared to side with Argentina during a press conference with President Kirchner in Buenos Aires. Last month, as the current situation developed, rather than send a clear message to Argentina that the United States supported its longtime ally, a State Department spokesman demurred: “[t]his is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom…We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands, but take no position regarding sovereignty.”  Nile Gardiner, the Telegraph’s Washington correspondent, wrote in response that the “Obama administration knife[d] Britain in the back again over the Falklands.”

O’Brien says this treatment comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been watching the Obama administration’s interaction with our allies, such as Israel, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Poland, and the Czech Republic, to name a few. Many of them, O’Brien points out, live in dangerous neighborhoods, and an unreliable America is a frightening prospect. Expect the shifting balance of power in the Middle East and the Baltics to reflect the vacuum this administration is creating.

Beyond power, O’Brien warns our credibility is in question at a time when it is greatly needed:

Third, failing to promote the rule of law, democracy and self-determination in the Falklands will damage the United States’ ability to promote those goals in other nations.  The 3,200 residents of the Falklands have been there for over 175 years.  They descend from people who have inhabited the Islands for far longer than many Argentines have inhabited their own country.  They are, apparently without exception, in favor of maintaining their local parliamentary government and association with Britain. There are no Argentines on the islands and there are no “displaced” Las Malvinas (as Argentina has labeled the islands) refugees in Argentina seeking a “right of return.” The current diplomatic crisis follows the nationalistic playbook that President Kirchner borrowed from the former military junta and that is promoted by her mentor in Caracas. The fact that there are large oil reserves off the Falklands is also fueling Argentine territorial ambitions as its government would love to get control of such resources.

That the Obama administration would display such amateurish–and, it must be said, somewhat offensive–incompetence on the Falklands does not bode well for the more exigent and nuanced trials the U.S. faces elsewhere.



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