A former British prime Minister, James Callaghan once warned that sudden crises have the knack of coming out of the blue, from places and incidents that are often small and faraway. He could have been referring to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the tipping point for the beginning of the First World War, or he might have been referring to the Sudetenland at the outset of the Second World War. In fact he was referring to the Falkland Islands, windswept outposts in the wilds of the South Atlantic, inhabited at that time by about 2000 British people.
The Argentinean invasion in 1983 took Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government completely by surprise. For not only had she withdrawn the only Royal Navy protection vessel from the area, her Government had recently deemed that all residents of British dependent territories – with the exception of Gibraltar – would no longer have automatic entry to the UK, thus in effect making them second class citizens. The Argentinean junta, led by General Galtieri, saw all of this as evidence of British indifference, and the rest of course is history.
Well, not quite. For while the rest of the World came to see Margaret Thatcher in an altogether different light after she had despatched a naval task force to the islands, she very nearly didn’t. To begin with she vacillated, and it was only after the intervention of the First Lord of the Admiralty, dressed in full naval regalia who turned up in Downing Street that she came out fighting. The Admiralty of course had an agenda – to force the Government to reverse its defence cuts – and save the Navy’s aircraft carriers. In this they succeeded.
But they could not have succeeded in taking back the islands without the support, covert and overt, from two allies, the United States and Chile. Whatever the misgivings of the late Jean Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan supported the British to the hilt. US intelligence information proved absolutely vital for the naval taskforce, as did the use of Chilean ports.
Fast forward to today’s war of words in the Atlantic, as drilling gets underway to explore for oil; for all of the sabre rattling there will be no second war for the ‘Malvinas’. That is because to all extents and purposes Argentina has already won. Chile is, with the rest of South America, this time supporting Argentina’s case at the United Nations. Argentina knows full well that Britain cannot defend the islands any longer, despite there now being a permanent garrison. She also knows, crucially, that the Obama administration has pointedly refused to take sides this time around.
Argentina simply has to keep up the pressure, and eventually there will be negotiations and I suspect largely on Argentina’s terms. Which will not mean, incidentally that any British Government will perform a scuttle, but that real politic will demand that the Falkland Islanders reach some settlement with the mainland.
But it is that American ambivalence which has really begun to strike home on this side of the pond. British politicians and commentators delight still in referring to the “Special Relationship” with the United States, despite the fact that few Americans ever reciprocate. Successive British Governments never cease to remind voters that this is why British forces are deployed alongside Americans from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The Afghan war remains hugely unpopular in Britain. The common perception of President Obama’s surge, a surge that has a British component, is that the Taliban have simply melted away, only to strike with impunity at the heart of Kabul. Few Brits think the Afghan war can be won, and most would pull the forces out, despite the cosy consensus of the political parties to keep on fighting.
So, the argument will go – and I am already hearing it – “why the hell should we back the Americans in Afghanistan, when they can’t back us over the Falklands?” We will be hearing a good deal more of that over the next few weeks.