Commentary Magazine


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.

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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