Obama's Falklands Neutrality: Positively Reaganite


When the Argentine army, under the command of the rancid military dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher's popularity was in free fall, unemployment was at its highest point since the 1930s, and the Iron Lady looked to go down in ignominy as the most unpopular leader in modern British history. And despite the criticism surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano, the electoral boost received by Thatcher government after her military's decisive victory rescued her tenure as Prime Minister (this would later be dubbed the "Falklands Effect"). 

Now, almost thirty years later, the Argentinians are making noise about regaining sovereignty over the islands, cheered on by allies in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Cuba. And both British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose poll numbers are consistently dire, and Argentinian President Christina Kirchner, also struggling with sagging popularity, could use a Falklands Effect of their own. While there appears to be no threat of military hostilities (the Argentinians have claimed to have no military designs on the territory and are instead petitioning the United Nations for assistance), the chest-thumping, jingoistic debates over oil rights and sovereignty are again dominating the news in Buenos Aires.

The Obama administration has refused to publicly support the British in this latest dispute, with a State Department official telling reports that "We are aware not only of the current situation but also of the history, but our position remains one of neutrality."

A handful of conservative websites pounced. RedState denounced the administration's decision, noting the "staunch support the U.S. gave Britain under President Reagan during the 1982 Falklands War." Writing at the Heritage Foundation blog, Nile Gardiner describes the Obama administration's response as a "disgrace" for "adopting a strictly neutral approach." And so on.

The (London) Times writes that the Obama position is in "stark contrast to the public backing and vital intelligence offered by President Reagan to Margaret Thatcher once she had made the decision to recover the islands by force in 1982."

Note the phrase "once she had made the decision," a distinction that eludes the Reagan hagiographers. Because before the British took military action in 1982, the Reagan administration was, to the consternation of the British foreign office, very much on the fence and, initially, wedded to the neutrality position. Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, lobbied for the Argentinian cause, fearful of the power vacuum that could appear in the event of a British victory. 

In a letter to Thatcher, Reagan said that his government would take a neutral position on the matter—again, causing great anger—but would come out in favor of its ally if the Argentinians decide to start shooting.

It's important to remember that even after hostilities commenced, Reagan was pressing the Thatcher government for a ceasefire. Again, to the profound irritation of Thatcher. While British troops advanced on Port Stanley, the two leaders spoke on the telephone, with Reagan suggesting an immediate cessation of fighting. As the Times noted in 1992, Thatcher, "with barely concealed impatience, scotched the plan with a verbal explosion."

And it was only a communications error that prevented the United States from abstaining, rather than vetoing, a United Nation Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire—which Britain strenuously opposed.

In his memoirs, George Schultz remembers another Falklands-related fissure in the "special relationship." More "Iron Lady" seething:

I had persuaded President Reagan that we should vote in favor of a balanced UN resolution on the Falklands. Although our consultations had let her know what was coming and our negotiations produced a resolution she could live with, Margaret Thatcher was furious. We voted with Argentina and the rest of the Western Hemisphere for a resolution that she opposed. Her ambassador, on instructions, read me off like a sergeant would a recruit in a Marine Corps boot camp. I felt Mrs Thatcher was wrong to oppose us for taking a reasonable position on a critical issue in our neighborhood. And Wright was wrong to lay it on so thick. I worried that President Reagan would be alarmed at Margaret Thatcher's reaction, but I found that he, too, was getting a little fed up with her imperious attitude on this matter.

As Schultz notes later in his memoirs, it wouldn't be the last Reagan-Thatcher rift of foreign policy. She would furiously oppose America's 1983 intervention in Grenada. 

It is important to remember that the "special relationship" has not always been one of mutual sycophancy and uniformity of purpose. The 1982 dispute between Argentina and Great Britain, contra RedState and other conservative bloggers, required significant lobbying from the prime minister and Whitehall to guarantee American support. 

For the most balanced, succinct account of Thatcher's Falkland War decisions, see the chapter "Salvation in the South Atlantic" in John Campbell's excellent 2003 biography Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady.

Update: Over at The Spectator, the always interesting Alex Massie makes a similar argument.