Commentary Magazine


Topic: Falkland Islands

Margaret Thatcher

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.

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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.

Perhaps her finest moment was when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Thousands of miles away from Britain, inhabited by a few thousand sheep farmers, cold and rainy, many thought the islands not worth the price that would have to be paid to recover them. But Margaret Thatcher, convening a cabinet meeting on the subject after the news of the invasion, said simply, “Gentlemen, we shall have to fight.”

And fight they did. It cost millions of pounds and hundreds of lives, but Britain recovered the islands and defeated naked aggression. The results elsewhere were enormously positive. Not only did the people of the Falklands keep the government they wanted, but the junta ruling Argentina fell and democracy returned to that much misgoverned country. The victory greatly raised British spirits and national pride, which badly needed raising. Thatcher called an election following the military triumph and enjoyed a political one.

Like all great political leaders, Margaret Thatcher was a great personality. Like FDR, Churchill, and Reagan, people who never met her still felt they knew her almost personally. She was far more than just a name in a headline. And that is why, along with her accomplishments, Margaret Thatcher is immortal, one who will be written about and argued about for as long as the 20th century itself is. After all, she has already been the subject of a great Hollywood movie. Can you imagine anyone making a movie about Edward Heath or Harold Wilson?

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A Falkland Islands Coda

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.

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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.

What Argentina wants–relying on two UN General Assembly Resolutions–is to throw the Falklands question into the largely moribund UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Amusingly, UN Resolution 1514 of 1960, which Argentina claims supports its case, clearly rejects Argentina’s thesis that peoples and territory can be separated by noting that that “all peoples have the right to self-determination and in virtue of that right can freely determine their political condition.” General Assembly resolutions are in any case only an expression of international opinion, and are binding on no one. Argentina’s enthusiasm for the Special Committee is not a case of a misapplied principle: it’s all about the membership of the committee and Argentina’s search for a biased referee.

As Colum Lynch noted in February, thanks to regional blocs that routinely put up wildly inappropriate candidates for UN positions, the UN has a job for everyone. That includes Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari, who was re-elected rapporteur of the committee, and who joins Ecuador (an Argentine ally), Cuba (ditto), and Sierra Leone on the committee’s leadership. There are no Western nations on the committee, and the U.S. refuses to participate in it because of its irremediable bias. So how did Ambassador Castro make her appeal for UN intervention?

By asserting that “Self-determination is a fundamental principle contemplated by the international law that’s not granted to any settlers of a certain territory, but only to the original natives that were or currently are being subjugated to a certain colonial power….” You get only one guess as to which nation the UN code word “certain colonial power” refers: Israel, of course. So in this ludicrous analogy, Argentina is to the Palestinians as the Islanders are to Israel. What’s the point of saying something this silly?

Well, as Jonathan noted in January, Argentina is falling–whether for reasons of political sympathy, shared nuclear ambitions, or a mutual desire to escape their economic difficulties–ever more into Iran’s orbit. And one way you can signal that, and even advance it, is to complain about Israel. The appearance of terms like “a certain colonial power,” in other words, is a reliable indicator not just that the UN is up to its old game of slandering the Middle East’s only democracy, but that the autocratic powers are gathering and signaling to each other for nefarious purposes of their own.

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Another (Self-Induced) Diplomatic Headache for Obama

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.”

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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.”

The irony of the Falklands is that those who either oppose British sovereignty over the islands or simply refuse to support it have contributed far more to the U.K.’s lasting control over the islands than anyone on the British side. They have turned what was a faraway and costly remnant of a disintegrating empire into an issue of national pride. This was certainly what Argentina did when it chose to invade the islands in 1982. Argentinean junta leaders correctly read signals indicating the British had no real desire to hold on to the islands, and a bit of patience would have almost certainly been rewarded. Instead, they attacked.

In his history of the Cold War, Norman Stone recounts the scene with typically colorful flourishes. Both Argentina and the British seemed to think that a quiet transfer of authority of the islands to Argentina would be in everyone’s interest. Stone describes the unfolding of a genuinely stupid miscalculation on the part of the junta:

In December 1981 a General Leopoldo Galtieri seized the dominant role in the Buenos Aires military junta, and he appeared as the ultimate in comic, circus-uniformed rulers, an “El Supremo” out of Hornblower. In March 1982 he tested the waters: his troops landed on South Georgia, a remote, frozen place from which the British had conducted surveys of the Antarctic. Then, on 2 April, he invaded the Falklands. In London there was disbelief: a senior Foreign Office man caught the mood when he gasped, they cannot treat a major power in this way.

Parliament was furious and Margaret Thatcher took action, sending forces to repel the invasion. Stone notes that public opinion was rallied to the cause. Had the Argentine junta been smart, even the island’s inhabitants who wanted to remain under the crown could have been relocated to other islands still controlled by Britain and for a fraction of the cost of the Falklands war. Yet the junta “behaved with grotesque obstinacy.” The junta seemed to think they’d have American support; they of course did not. Stone suggests the junta leaders may have even misread Jeane Kirkpatrick’s COMMENTARY essay on “Dictatorships and Double Standards” to think they had some latitude in acting out their delusional fantasies. The French helped the British effort, which was successful. Thatcher was able to say “we have ceased to be a nation in retreat.”

The junta fell and Thatcher was venerated as a liberator. British national pride received a much-needed jolt and, Stone writes, “in some ways it marked the high point of the Thatcher period: a courageous budget was associated with economic recovery, and the Falklands campaign with a great sea-change in international affairs.”

The Falklands were an artifact; they were not exactly the jewel in the crown. But just like that they had become a new kind of Dunkirk, a symbol of British strength and resolve. As the AP story notes, some are raising questions about the logic of retaining the islands in an age of austerity. The vote was less a message to the United States than it was to David Cameron not to cut them loose to free up some spare change. But that decision, if taken, will ultimately be Britain’s. Denying British sovereignty remains silly. You can’t ask for much more of a mandate than 99.8 percent agreement among the population.

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Obama’s Low Regard for British Democracy

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:

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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:

The United States entered Britain’s debate over its relationship with the European Union on Wednesday, when a senior diplomat implicitly warned the British government not to do anything that might endanger its membership in the 27-nation union.

The comments, made in London by Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, echo sentiments expressed by a number of European officials. But they are likely to have a bigger impact in Britain because of the closeness of its ties to Washington, a point of pride in London.

The timing of the rare public intervention is also significant, coming shortly before a long-awaited speech by Prime Minister David Cameron in which he intends to lay out plans for a redefinition of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

Tory minister Daniel Hannan, a leading Euroskeptic who warns of the EU’s penchant for eroding democracy and individual rights, offered the appropriate response: “Of all the bad arguments for being in the EU, the worst is to humour Barack Obama.”

There is a fair amount of chutzpah in the administration’s request. At the outset, it should be noted that President Obama is learning that he can apply the lessons of his failures elsewhere to a broad range of circumstances. Though it took him four years, Obama has learned, for example, that he has more leverage over the Israeli government when he decreases the daylight between the two allies, thereby increasing his approval and legitimacy of purpose among the populace there. He might want to consider that episode’s relevance to Europe, where he would have more leverage if he hadn’t spent four years pushing our allies away.

Having insulted Britain’s government repeatedly, he is low on credibility; incompetence has its consequences. Then there is the issue of the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the administration’s advice, quite apart from whether it has the credibility to offer it. The speech Cameron is expected to give likely will include a proposal for a “looser” arrangement between the EU and Britain. Cameron may even promise to hold a public referendum on the changes. This–the practice known as “democracy”–seems to be what the State Department official Gordon feared most, warning Cameron that such public votes on the EU “have sometimes turned countries inward.”

This is an implicit acknowledgement that the people don’t much like the EU. The Obama administration is thus worried that the people will have a say in the affairs of their country, and that the people of Britain will express an opinion at odds with what Barack Obama thinks they should think (imagine that). Is the United States now in the business of explicitly warning Western Europe not to practice democracy? Has the Obama administration given much thought to the great many ways this could backfire?

Hannan offers some history, and explains just why the Obama administration’s request is a lot to ask of its ally:

After the end of the Cold War, the Brussels élites started picking fights with what they called the world’s hyperpuissance. They channelled funds to Hamas, declined to get tough with the ayatollahs in Teheran, declared their willingness in principle to sell weapons to China, refused to deal with the anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba, started building a satellite system with the Chinese to challenge American ‘technological imperialism’ (J Chirac), hectored the US about its failure to join various global technocracies and complained about domestic American policies, from cheap energy to the use of the death penalty. Most Americans, even some in the State Department, have started to grasp, Frankenstein-like, that the EU is turning against them. So now they want the most pro-American member state, namely the United Kingdom, to get stuck in and moderate these anti-yanqui tendencies. Would we mind abandoning our democracy so as to help them out?

They certainly should mind, and ought to push back against this sort of nonsense from the Obama administration. Neither American nor British interests are well served by quashing the democratic impulse and chaining countries to a failing project like the EU.

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Is Obama Repeating April Glaspie’s Gaffe?

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.

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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.

Alas, there is a thin line between neutrality and moral equivalence. The fact of the matter is that the islands are British, the people residing on the islands are British, and every time anyone has bothered to ask the residents of the Falkland Islands, they have expressed an overwhelming desire to remain fully British. The problem with neutrality is that it legitimizes outrageous claims. There really is nothing to talk about, but by suggesting there is, Obama is fanning the flames of conflict, allowing rhetorical momentum to build, perhaps to the point where Kirchner will look at Obama’s studied neutrality the same way Saddam interpreted Glaspie’s.

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Obama’s Private Assurances on Falklands Not Good Enough

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.

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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.

Having won the 1982 war with Argentina, and with the islands settled almost exclusively by Britons, Britain should demand nothing less than a recognition by the United States of its sovereignty, on the basis of both its historic claim and the expressed will of the people of the Falklands. The fact that this current crisis was ginned up exclusively by Argentina for domestic political reasons, and that they are still escalating it – even as Cameron spoke, Argentina announced that it would pursue legal action against oil and shipping firms that operate in Falklands waters – gives Britain, if possible, an even stronger case.

The entire Obama policy toward the Falklands makes no sense on the surface, but when governments do something that seems to make no sense, there’s usually a reason for it. The most charitable explanation would be to invoke Occam’s Razor, and to suggest that the problem is one common to all administrations: career State Department officials – perhaps on the Argentina desk — writing briefs and driving policy in ways that make their life easier, but that don’t actually reflect the policies the higher-ups want to adopt, if they took a moment to think about it. I would like to believe that, partly because every administration faces the problem of trying to get State to stop making policy on its own, and partly because – if Cameron really did make a break-through – it would give him credit for raising the issue, and Obama credit for recognizing that his subordinates were making a mess of things.

But I’m afraid I can’t accept that explanation. The parade of senior officials who spoke on the record urging negotiations between Britain and Argentina has been too long for it to be a case of unguided subordinates.  It was back in March 2010, two years ago, when the Secretary of State herself kicked off the parade by stating, in a press conference in Argentina with Argentine President Kristina Kirchner that: “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.”

And as recently as last month, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland repeated that message: “We are encouraging Argentina and the UK to work this out peacefully, to work it out through negotiations.”

So my explanation is more along the lines of Peter’s comment about Obama and gas prices: the Administration’s policy is purely cynical. It figured it could get credit in Argentina by sounding sympathetic to it, but that the actual risk of an Argentine invasion was limited, so nothing much would happen that would actually hurt British interests.  The only flaws in this approach are that Argentina can cause a lot of headaches for Britain and the islands without invading, that egging on Argentina’s domestic populism is rampantly irresponsible and runs the risk of encouraging a war, that it imposes on Britain a further cost for defending the islands, and that it gets the British very annoyed and encourages an unhelpful British suspicion of the U.S.

So until I hear President Obama state, on the record and publicly, that the U.S. sees no reason for negotiations over the Islands because it recognizes British sovereignty over them, I am going to take this brief, private interchange reported at second hand for what it is worth: not very much at all.

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