Breaking faith: President Obama, the Falklands and the United Kingdom

Thursday, May 3, 2012

We have clear evidence, again, demonstrating why President Obama has held fewer news conferences than any other contemporary president. Without a teleprompter and speechwriters, Barack Obama can make listeners nostalgic for the rhetorical agility of George W. Bush. Unfortunately, this particular oral fumble not only confused one archipelago for another -- the Maldives for the Malvinas -- it also revealed either woeful ignorance of an issue critical to our strongest ally, or betrayal of that same ally.

The issue in question was over the status of the Falklands, an island group about 250 nautical miles southeast of Argentina and claimed by the Argentines but recognized by the United States as indisputably British. President Obama, attending a summit of Western Hemisphere nations, was asked by a reporter at what he thought of the dispute. His response: "This is something in which we would not typically intervene." He also called for negotiations over the islands, despite the universal desire by the residents to remain British and Argentina's invasion of the islands in 1982.

Fortunately, Obama was not President at that time, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked for U.S. logistical help to reclaim this British territory. In fact, it was President Reagan who stood by our British ally, lending critical aid -- fuel, munitions and intelligence -- to Her Majesty's Armed Forces, which were able to repulse Argentina's aggression and liberate the residents of the Falklands.

U.S. support for the British was unwavering, essential and diplomatically costly for the United States in Latin America. Nonetheless, the U.S. supported Britain because that is what strong allies do -- they have each other's backs, no matter the temporary inconvenience.

Most Latin American nations regard the Falklands as occupied territory and were disappointed in President Reagan's reaction. During subsequent events in world politics -- the Gulf War, the Iraq War, efforts to isolate Iran -- the U.K. has always been there for the United States. There has been, as the saying goes, "no daylight" between these two nations.

One can overlook or just chuckle at President Obama calling the islands, in the same answer, "the Maldives" (an independent island nation in the Indian Ocean, claimed by neither Argentina or the U.K.), when he meant to use the term "Malvinas," but even this error revealed either his ignorance or his deliberate snub of the British.

The official name is the Falkland Islands, and if this seems a small difference, consider how we might feel if a French official mentioned their hope to reclaim the Louisiana Purchase (including Missouri) and our geographically closest ally -- Canada -- promised to remain neutral. In the case of Obama, this is in fact what he did, indicating that the United States did not want to get involved, and that he hoped for a negotiated settlement. How might British Prime Minister David Cameron, who maintains British forces in Afghanistan to help the United States despite that war's deep unpopularity in the U.K., feel about this slight?

It might be a different situation if this was a conflict between two close allies of the U.S., such as between Japan and South Korea, or Germany and Italy. Argentina is no American ally. Its president, Cristina Kirchner, is the leader of the Peronist party, dedicated to socialism and destroying capitalism. Ideologically more akin to Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, Kirchner recently confiscated a major Spanish-owned oil company and has threatened to seize more of the few foreign companies foolhardy enough to maintain investments under this populist and demagogic regime.

President Obama thus continues his record of putting distance -- that unwanted daylight -- between the United States and its most critical ally. While it is still possible to salvage "the special relationship," as observers have described the century-old political and military bond with the UK, that rescue operation can only begin with a new President of the United States, a transition that will hopefully come in January 2013.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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