Alex Massie

Obama, Reagan and the Falklands

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A follow-up to this post: sure, excitable Conservatives in Britain and the United States see the Obama administration's disinclination to take a position on the latest Falklands dispute as proof that the poor man really does dislike the United Kingdom and is quite happy to see the so-called Special Relationship consigned to the library of history, a splendid relic of a bygone age. Well, maybe. But since this is a bilateral dispute that doesn't involve any country hostile to the US it is, as Daniel Larison says, hard to see why we demand a public declaration of American support when there's no real need for this.

Meanwhile, it cannot be repeated too often that the Reagan administration was also not always on board. This goes beyond Jeane Kirkpatrick's shilling for the Galtieri regime. Indeed, thanks are due to Reason's Michael Moynihan for dredging up this reminder that Reagan pressed Thatcher for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement even as British troops marched and yomped across the islands on their way to Port Stanley:

The document shows Thatcher was determined to deliver a crushing victory to avenge British losses. Her response to the peace initiative left the president stammering on the transatlantic hotline. At one stage a clearly heated Thatcher demanded to know what Reagan would do if Alaska had been invaded and the United States had suffered casualties recapturing it.

“I wonder if anyone over there realises, I'd like to ask them. Just supposing Alaska was invaded ...” asked Thatcher. “Now you've put all your people up there to retake it and someone suggested that a contact could coe in ... you wouldn't do it.”

“No, no, although, Margaret, I have to say I don't quite think Alaska is a similar situation” said Reagan.

“More or less so,” snapped Thatcher. Reagan feared the pending rout of Argentine forces in the south Atlantic would destabilise the region, damaging Washington's battle against left-wing regimes in Latin America.

But Thatcher, with barely concealed impatience, scotched the plan with a verbal explosion. Reagan could barely get a word in as the prime ministe gushed out a torrent of dismissal. “I didn't lose some of my best ships and some of my finest lives, to leave quietly under a ceasefire without the Argentines withdrawing,” she said.

“Oh. Oh, Margaret, that is part of this, as I understand it ...” stammered Reagan, trying to outline a Brazilian peace plan. It called for a ceasefire, Argentine withdrawal and a third-party peace-keeping force in the disputed islands. “Ron, I'm not handing over ... I'm not handing over the island now,” insisted Thatcher. “I can't lose the lives and blood of our soldiers to hand the islands over to a contact. It's not possible.

“You are surely not asking me, Ron, after we've lost some of our finest young men, you are surely not saying, that after the Argentine withdrawal, that our forces, and our administration, become immediately idle? I had to go to immense distances and mobilise half my country. I just had to go.”

Aye, that would be the Iron Lady we remember. Moynihan also cites another Falklands-related brouhaha as recalled in George Schults's memoirs:

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.

So, sure, the Pentagon might have backed Britain in 1982 but, in general terms, Obama's policy is, whether we like it or not, simply a continuation of long-established American policy on the matter. We may not approve, we may indeed be irritated by it and think it wrong, but to use this tiny tempest as proof of transatlantic bad faith is only possible if you're prepared to ignore or rewrite history. In other words, it's not a partisan or party political matter because Obama's State Department seems to take pretty much the same view - or perhaps, if anything, a more neutral position - than did the blessed Reagan.

That's not, incidentally, a criticism of Reagan either since, from the perspective of America's interest, their long-standing policy seems perfectly sensible. That it might be different from British views is hardly the point.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, may I heartily commend Norm's brutal yet dignified and, above all, correct, destruction of St Simon Jenkins' views on the Falklands and imperialism. Do read it all.


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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