Obama’s Falklands Failure
Image Credit: Wikicommons / Griffiths911

Obama’s Falklands Failure

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With the world’s attention focused on Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the Syrian civilian uprising, and with the increasing likelihood of a strike by Israel to thwart Iran’s relentless drive to obtain nuclear weapons, perhaps the most underreported international story is the increasingly heated dispute between Britain and Argentina in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is an unfolding issue that could say much about the way the U.S. handles its alliances, including those in the Asia-Pacific region.

Thirty years ago, on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly assembled and dispatched a formidable naval task force to retake the islands, which had been a British possession since 1833. On June 14, Argentine forces surrendered to the Royal Marines. The conflict was brief and violent, with both nations losing ships and hundreds of sailors and soldiers. The war was, however, a decisive victory for the United Kingdom.

As the 30th anniversary of the war approached, in December, Argentinian President Christina Kirchner vowed that her nation would reclaim the Islas Las Malvinas, as the Falklands are called in Argentina. She stated that “[i]n the 21st century [Britain] continues to be a crude colonial power in decline.”  She branded British Prime Minister David Cameron “arrogant” and said his defense in parliament of the right of the people of the Falklands to self-determination was an expression of “mediocrity and stupidity.”

Argentina’s Foreign Minister, Hector Timerman, claims that Cameron’s defense of the Falklands sovereignty “is perhaps the last refuge of a declining power.” Prince William aka Flight Lieutenant Wales, who is currently piloting a Royal Air Force rescue helicopter in the Falklands, has been labeled a “conquistador” by Argentine officials.

In a diplomatic offensive, Kirchner persuaded Argentina’s partners in the Mercosur trade block – Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – to ban civilian ships flying the Falklands’ flag from entering their ports. Mercosur members had previously banned British warships on Falklands duty from their ports. In December, the 33-country Community of Latin American and Caribbean States unanimously backed Argentina’s “legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute” over the Falklands and South Georgia.

This past week, in response to the U.K.’s dispatch of its newest destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to patrol the South Atlantic, Timerman officially complained to the United Nations Security Council that Britain had “militarized” the region. Given the timing of his complaint, just weeks before the anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the islands, it can be assumed that Timerman lacks a sense of irony.  Argentina now claims that the United Kingdom is using the 3,000 residents of the Falklands as a mere pretense for its desire to maintain a South Atlantic “empire.”  In his U.N. filing, Timerman noted: “[i]t is the last ocean that is controlled by the United Kingdom – Britannia rules only the South Atlantic.”

While it seems unlikely that Argentina would risk another humiliating defeat by invading the Falklands in the near term, the temptation of appealing to nationalism to mask an economic or political crisis combined with the desire to control what appear to be significant South Atlantic oil reserves means that another Argentine military adventure cannot be ruled out. There are four key takeaways from the current situation with implications that stretch much further than the issue at hand:

First, military weakness is provocative. Argentina ramped up its aggressive rhetoric and diplomatic efforts to reclaim the Falklands only after P.M. Cameron announced massive cuts to the Royal Navy and British ground forces. The decommissioning last December of the U.K.’s sole remaining aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, well before its service life ended, and the sale of Britain’s 50 G-9 Sea Harrier fighter jets to the U.S. Marine Corps, seems to have emboldened the Argentines. In 1982, the Royal Navy had approximately 90 warships from which it could assemble a task force.  Today it has 30. Indeed, most experts believe that while it would be very difficult for the Argentine military to successfully invade the islands, it would be nearly impossible for the U.K. to retake them without an aircraft carrier in the event that Argentina was successful in overrunning Britain’s key air base at Mount Pleasant.

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.

Comments
73
Zhang Dong
February 9, 2014 at 16:33

I am Chinese, I support Britain , do what must be done

Matt
November 30, 2013 at 17:16

It is the same as the Israel and Iran issue, DPRK sinking the ROK naval vessel and the same if the PRC shot down a ROK or Japanese plane. Everyone likes to point fingers and laugh but they are all in the same position. Countries like to chim in on what other should or should not do. Worry about yourselves, because it is all the same just replace the countries name.

markh2
March 31, 2013 at 06:50

The British claim goes back to before Argentina existed. After so many generations have lived there, are the Falklanders not entitled to self determination? The Argentinians declared independance and had their self determination, but they don't want the same for others. The British have been busy "de-colonising", since 1945. But the Argentine idea of "de-colonising" seems to be when they take over a place lived in for many generations, against the residents will. I think the British are shocked and disapointed that Obama, of all people, doesn't support self determination. Clearly the USA no longer stands for a lot of things we thought it did.

Liam Tony Peter Carson
January 8, 2013 at 10:19

although the uk doesnt have a aircraftcarrie,there is plans for not only one but two

paul
January 3, 2013 at 04:04

 All this talk about British forces decline, if anything were better and stronger and can do a lot more than we could in 82 i really belive we would thrash the whole of a combined south American invasion force even if we went it alone.
 Argentina has nothing to offer but token force, Venezula is a mere talking shop with little to offer and a few nuclear Brazilian subs and warships that are not state of the art like ours would be shot out of the water, as a nation we have only been practicing killing Russian ones for the past 50 years. just like last time we would control the sea lanes. only this time Vanguard can fire cruise missiles and our type 45 though fewer in number are awesome bits of kit that would give any war planners nightmares. not to mention how quickly we could reinforce mount pleasant with a few more squadrons of typhoons and a few thousand more troops all battle hardened from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I actually believe it would be a turkey shoot long before one south American boot ever stepped ashore. a blood bath where as a civilized society like ours would have to hold back from killing to many as to not look to bad.

Jeremy
March 2, 2012 at 03:50

Argentina is clearly provoking a military confrontation with the UK and therefore Kirchner should be taken to task by the UN. If she does start a conflict, she should be arrested and tried as a war criminal.

She is no better than her tin-pot dictator friend Chavez and Argentina does not exist as a true democracy, it is run on a level more akin to the days of the Junta.

The US is great at talking the talk, but weak when it comes to taking action. They’ll step in only when it suits them & if they have something to gain personally (like oil in the Middle East) or if they think starting a war is justification for a terrorist attack (Afghanistan) but otherwise they really don’t care what happens beyond their own shores. President Reagan stood shoulder to shoulder with Margaret Thatcher in 1982 and offered full military support to his closest ally. I’m not sure if Mr Obama really knows who his allies are anymore, but then, foreign policy hasn’t exactly been his strong point.

A. B.
February 28, 2012 at 08:07

This article is not about the Falklands; it’s really an excuse to attack Obama. In part, it uses assertions made in the UK about the islands’ vulnerability due to the UK’s lack of an aircraft carrier; once again, there’s an agenda behind those assertions, too — justification for not just a carrier but also carrier strike aircraft.

The U.K. doesn’t need much help in the Falklands; see this summary of the military position:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17157373

These islands would be hard for the UK to recover, given the lack of a carrier … but given the islands’ much stronger defense, they would be impossible for Argentina to seize.

LAS MALVINAS ARGENTINAS
February 25, 2012 at 04:49

Hello again
…And please, you do not need to insult me to raise your case,…and for the current residents in Malvinas, They can decide to be a part of Southamerica, but not a british colony/department….they will have the posibility of use english and spanish and perhaps have a kind of self goverment under argentinean law..

We (southamericans) recommend you the british to go the ´´Hong Kong´´ way, it means to transfer the islands sovereignty in a peaceful way… Our economically/militar potential is going only one way, UP…while yours…

Think about it…At the end of the day, you will be very welcome to visi Las Malvinas as a turist.

Time is in our side WE DO NOT WANT FOREIGN POWERS IN OUR CONTINENT.

david
January 18, 2014 at 07:07

Send your invaision force
but make sure they remember to pack there white flags

JohnX
February 25, 2012 at 02:23

Yes, every day, an americas indian makes that same call. Argentina is made up predominantly of the same people who are foriegn, and your acceptance of the right to attack Falkland Islanders because of ? is so arrogant its stupid.

By the way, they can become a nation of South America and remain alied to the UK and under thier protection or are you so arrogant as to say that those who joined Argentina in the 1940s are truly South American, but those who have lived in the Falklands a lot longer are not.

The fact that you are not even Argentinian and you support the attacking of a small population says a lot about you and your views.

Noah
February 25, 2012 at 00:26

Britain is more of an ally than a Latin American country, because they are apart of NATO and represent an older partnership. Argentina is not all of Latin America, nor is it representative of all Latin America.

The U.S.’s failure to support the U.K. is NOT trivial. It shows that the U.S. will make “allies” with so many nations, that it can afford to support none of them. While that is genius political/diplomatic strategy, it is not ethical or pragmatic.

Argentina complains of British “colonialism” by appealing to one of the most destructive forces of the past 200 years… Nationalism.

Argentina has no higher moral ground, and democracy should prevail and the Falklands remain apart of whom they want to.

For those of you who say the U.K. is being irrational by defending 2-3k people… How is the opposite not true of Argentina, who would wish to take the same islands with the same mere 2-3k people, by force?

So who is in the right and who is in the wrong? One is a nationalistic belligerent, the other is a democratically supported institution of pseudo-colonialism.
And do not kid yourselves. Argentina doesn’t want the island for the 2-3k people. They want the oil and the prestige.

Argentina should be rebuffed. The U.S. does not/should not support BELLIGERENTS to her allies… Ones that are apart of NATO and the UNSC no less.

Kirchner is being an illogical imbecile and a hypocrite. Does the U.S. support hypocrites?
Sometimes/many times…
But should we support them at the expense of the U.K.?
No.

LAS MALVINAS ARGENTINAS
February 24, 2012 at 05:50

Hello John X
Regarding you question….´´Would you invade them and impose your iron will against them?´´
Well, it will be the perfect situation to give the current residents, A CHOICE TO DECIDE….to stay and be part of the rest of the continent, or perhaps return to their original place…ironically the ancient habitants NEVER GOT THAT CHOICE, because they were expelled by force.
As I said before, time is in our side…and by the way, I´m not argentinian, but southamerican….WE DO NOT WANT FOREIGN POWERS IN OUR CONTINENT.

Niels van Wanrooij
February 21, 2012 at 04:06

“Unfortunately, Falklanders should expect little support from the United Nations for their rights in the face of any Argentine aggression. The deaf ears of the international community to the pleas of Syrian civilian protestors in Homs, Zimbabwean farmers of British descent, Iranian democracy advocates or Chinese dissidents should steel them for their future should Argentina seek to take over their islands.”

There is an important disanalogy here. If Argentine were to take over the Falklands, it would essentially attack the United Kingdom itself, which would legitimise British self-defense now as much as it did in the 1980s. (Also, it does not really matter that the United Kingdom has scaled back the size of its military, since it is still part of NATO and could invoke the collective security preamble.) All the examples that are mentioned are of an entirely different nature: they are essentially domestic matters. This should not be taken to mean that they should not be critically assessed and that there is no case for legitimate intervention in each and every one of those cases, but obviously it is harder to act in violation of the still almost sacrosanct ‘sovereignty’ norm than it is to act in self-defense.

Furthermore, it seems somewhat implausible to imply that the decision by the US not (yet) to interfere constitutes a real blow to the “special relationship” with the UK: the Falklands are largely a symbolic matter (with just over 2,000 inhabitants) and US-UK relationships will not be damaged by something that is (comparatively) trivial.

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