One of the giants who walked the earth in my lifetime, Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 87.
With the exception of Winston Churchill, she was, without question, the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. Before she went to 10 Downing Street in 1979, Britain had been in seemingly irreversible decline, its empire gone, its industry ramshackle, its politics in thrall to the trade unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe. By the time she left office, in 1990, all that had changed. The power of the unions had been broken, the British economy was expanding rapidly, the government had sold off previously socialized industries. The United Kingdom was, once again, one of the great nations of the world.
Like all great people of determination and principle, she was savagely criticized. She was called “La pasionaria of privilege” and “Attila the hen.” But, thoroughly at home in the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, it didn’t bother her a bit. She was delighted when Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed her “the iron lady.” Along with Ronald Reagan, with whom she developed a very close relationship, she changed the whole tone of international politics and helped bring the Cold War to an end with the collapse of Communism and the success of free-market capitalism. The world was a different, and better, place after her premiership.
Spurred on by James Kirchick’s superb piece on why the Falkland Islands matter, and by my on-going visit to the UN, it’s worth pointing out how the Falklands illustrate one more thing: how the autocracies, in hanging together at the UN, all too often organize around their shared hatred of Israel.
The Argentine line, set out by Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to Britain, is that the referendum was “neither organized nor approved by the United Nations. . . . Argentina is not trying to change their identity or their life style, but the territory they live on is not theirs. . . . [The] Islanders are not part of the sovereignty dispute since the sovereignty claims are over the territory and not them.” Under this doctrine, most African and Asian nations are not legitimately independent either, since the UN did not organize their referenda. The theory that people can be separated from the land they live on would give Britain a claim to the land of Kenya, or Germany a claim to Namibia. It’s an approach that, as Argentina knows all too well, the UN would certainly never apply to the West Bank.
For an administration that has made no effort to conceal its disdain for allied diplomacy, whether with an Israel that President Obama insists doesn’t know its own interests or a British political class that absorbs repeated insults with typical grace, yesterday’s Falklands referendum will provide a few more headaches. The Falkland Islands have been a source of minor tension between Britain and the Obama administration, which refuses to recognize the clear-as-day British sovereignty over the islands and even took the bizarre step of attempting to use the Argentinean term for them. (I say “attempting” because Obama flubbed the name.)
When Secretary of State John Kerry visited London in late February, he was asked about the then-upcoming vote in which the residents of the islands would choose their fate. Kerry explained that he could not begin to care about the wishes of the islanders: “Let me be very clear about our position with respect to the Falklands, which I believe is clear. First of all, I’m not going to comment, nor is the President, on a referendum that has yet to take place, hasn’t taken place. Our position on the Falklands has not changed. The United States recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of parties’ sovereignty claims thereto. We support co-operation between U.K. and Argentina on practical matters,” Kerry said.
Well now the referendum has taken place, and it’s a result for the pro-British side that vote-rigging autocrats around the world could only dream of. The AP reports that “An overwhelming 99.8 percent of Falkland Islands voters have backed keeping their government just the way it is: a British Overseas Territory.”
You might think that the Obama administration, having declined to support British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions (with Obama even attempting, but comically failing, to call the islands by their Argentine name), that this administration has taken enough potshots at the UK. This impression is only reinforced when you consider the White House’s absurd and dishonest shenanigans over its removal of the bust of Winston Churchill.
But the administration is signaling that its second term will, in its low regard for British sovereignty, look and sound a lot like the first term. From today’s New York Times:
On July 25, 1990, April Glaspie, a career foreign service officer and ambassador to Iraq, made what in hindsight was one of the biggest gaffes in State Department history. During a rare meeting with Saddam Hussein, she assured the Iraqi dictator that the United States would not take sides in the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait. “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” she reportedly told the Iraqi dictator. Just over a week later, he invaded his tiny neighbor, setting off a cascade of events which would lead to two wars and devastating sanctions.
Fast forward more than two decades. Thirty years after an Argentine military junta for largely populist reasons invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory populated by British citizens, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is at it again. Perhaps she wants to deflect attention from her own mismanagement, or perhaps the fact that the British have discovered significant oil reserves off-shore has led her to renew Argentina’s increasingly militant claim. Enter President Obama. Putting aside his gaffe of his calling the islands the “Maldives” (an Indian Ocean archipelago) instead of Las Malvinas, Argentina’s name for the islands, Obama sought to play the neutral card. From The Daily Telegraph:
In his address, Mr Obama maintained the USA’s stance of neutrality over the Falklands, saying he wanted to ensure good relations with both Argentina and Britain. “This is something in which we would not typically intervene,” he said.
There’s been a lot of comment around the Internet about the Obama Administration’s refusal to back Britain in the growing tensions with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Now comes word that, supposedly, the President has thought better of this folly: according to David Cameron, he and Obama “briefly” discussed the issue, and, as Cameron says, “the U.S. position is that they support the status quo, they don’t argue against the status quo and that is very welcome . . .. They are content with the status quo; they are not challenging the status quo.”
So, summing up, Obama = status quo. Though that’s not quite the way the New York Times puts it, which, without giving a direct quote, asserts that Obama said the U.S. “would stop prodding Britain and Argentina to talk to each other, but stick to its historic position of neutrality.” If so, that is actually a change of the Administration’s previous policy of backing negotiations over the status of the islands. But without a direct statement, it is impossible to be sure, and, frankly, a policy of neutrality is just not good enough.