There are legitimate territorial disputes, and then there is Argentina’s dispute with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands.
Here are the basic facts: The Falklands (located in the South Atlantic, roughly 300 miles from Argentina) were discovered by a British explorer in 1690 and have been under formal British rule for 180 years. British sovereignty was confirmed in 1982, when Her Majesty’s Forces successfully repelled an Argentine military invasion. Today, virtually all Falklanders strongly support the status quo. However, Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, a close friend and ally of the late Hugo Chávez, has spent the past two years demanding that London relinquish sovereignty over the islands and allow them to become Argentine territory. Kirchner began rattling sabers in 2011, when she was up for reelection. Since then, as Argentina’s economic situation has deteriorated, her government’s rhetoric has gotten more belligerent. For Kirchner—as for past Argentine leaders, including General Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered the 1982 invasion—the islands represent an easy way to distract attention from domestic problems and stoke nationalist passions.
In short: There is no reason for Washington to treat the Falklands dispute as an honest quarrel between two countries with equally valid claims. Unfortunately, that is exactly how the Obama administration has treated it.
Consider what happened last week. On Sunday and Monday, the Falklands held an internationally monitored referendum, asking residents whether they wanted the archipelago to remain part of the United Kingdom. Literally 99.8 percent of voters said “yes.” In fact, out of 1,517 valid ballots cast, only three supported the “no” position. (Turnout was 92 percent.) And yet, after witnessing this nearly unanimous statement by Falklands residents, the Obama administration once again refused to affirm British sovereignty over the islands.
“The residents have clearly expressed their preference for a continued relationship with the United Kingdom,” declared State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “That said, we obviously recognize there are competing claims. Our formal position has not changed. We recognize the de facto U.K. administration of the islands, but we take no position on sovereignty claims.”
Nuland’s comments echoed those of Secretary of State John Kerry, who during his February 25 press conference with British foreign secretary William Hague said that “the United States recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands, but takes no position on the question of the parties’ sovereignty claims thereto. And we support cooperation between U.K. and Argentina on practical matters, and we continue to urge a peaceful resolution of that critical issue.”
But what is there to resolve? The Falklands have been an official British territory since 1833, and their residents wish to remain British subjects—after the March 10-11 referendum, there can be no doubt about that. Thus, from London’s perspective, there is nothing to negotiate.
Of course, the real story here is President Kirchner’s shameless attempt to create a foreign conflict that will overshadow high inflation, new price controls on food, strict currency controls, labor unrest, teacher strikes, declining press freedom, widespread corruption, rising crime, and creeping autocracy. It is hard to overstate what a mess Kirchner has made of Argentina’s economy, and the International Monetary Fund recently censured her government for doctoring its official inflation and GDP data. Meanwhile, Argentina has agreed to whitewash the 1994 Iranian-backed bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires. For that matter, Argentina has also dramatically increased its exports to Iran (which rose by 937 percent in 2011).
Thus, by refusing to support British sovereignty over the Falklands, the Obama administration is emboldening a thuggish, quasi-authoritarian regime that is undercutting U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian theocracy. We should also note that Kirchner has pursued an aggressively anti-U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, since the beginning of 2011, her government has accused Washington of running torture schools, has petulantly seized equipment from a U.S. military plane, and has threatened U.S. banks for assisting British oil exploration in the Falklands.
With inflation estimated at 26 percent and labor unions angrily demanding higher wages, Agence France-Presse reports that Kirchner’s approval rating is “plummeting.” Argentina has national legislative elections scheduled for October, so the government is desperate to shift attention away from the economy and onto the Falklands. Right now, the Obama administration is making it much easier for Buenos Aires to prolong the dispute with London and rally regional support across Latin America. It is well past time for Washington to recognize British sovereignty over the islands and tell Kirchner to stop her campaign of intimidation.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.