Obama Says He’s ‘Neutral’ Over Falklands But Seems to Tilt Toward Argentina

April 17, 2012 - 4:36 AM
Obama colombia

President Obama sits in front of a large video screen displaying an image of a U.S. national flag during a three-way conversation with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff at the CEO Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia on Saturday April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s declaration in Colombia on Sunday that the United States is “going to remain neutral” on the sovereignty dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands is the latest in a string of administration statements that in fact tilt towards Argentina’s position.

“We have good relations with both Argentina and Great Britain, and we are looking forward to them being able to continue to dialogue on this issue,” Obama said during a press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “But this is not something that we typically intervene in.”

Britain, however, does not want to “dialogue” on the future of the Falklands. The self-governing archipelago in the South Atlantic has been under British sovereignty since 1833, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to war over the islands 30 years ago this month after an invasion by Argentina’s ruling military junta.

The position of various British governments has long been that the sovereignty issue is non-negotiable – unless the islands’ 3,000 or so inhabitants wish to hold such negotiations.

A U.S. stance supporting “dialogue” is closer to Buenos Aires’ increasingly forceful demands over the past four years for Britain to negotiate over the Falklands, in line with U.N. resolutions.

Obama will not have endeared himself to some in Britain by using – or attempting to use – Argentina’s name for the islands, “Las Malvinas.”

Replying to a questioner from Colombian television who asked him about “the Malvinas issue,” Obama opened his response with the words, “And in terms of the Maldives or the Falklands – whatever your preferred term – our position on this is that we are going to remain neutral.” (The Maldives is an independent island nation in the Indian Ocean.)

British newspapers picked up Obama's mistake. According to the U.K. Telegraph, "Barack Obama made an uncharacteristic error, more akin to those of his predecessor George W Bush, by referring to the Falkland Islands as the Maldives."

While Malvinas is the commonly-used Spanish name for the Falklands, some Falkland Islanders regard it as offensive because of the 1982 invasion and ongoing sovereignty dispute.

Last January, the State Department responded to a question on the subject during a regular press briefing by issuing a statement entitled “U.S. Position on the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands.”

“This is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom,” it said. “We encourage both parties to resolve their differences through dialogue in normal diplomatic channels. We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands but take no position regarding sovereignty.”

Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a stir when, during a visit to Buenos Aires, she said the U.S. would be willing to mediate, if that would be helpful.

She was responding to comments by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who expressed Argentina’s desire to negotiate with Britain over the islands within the framework of U.N. resolutions, and raised the possibility of “friendly mediation” by the U.S.

Clinton then agreed that the two countries should “sit down” and talk, adding, “If we can be of any help in facilitating such an effort, we stand ready to do so.”

Argentina’s ambassador in Washington called Clinton’s comments a show of unprecedented, “substantial support” for its position over the dispute.

A Downing Street spokesman responded coolly, saying the British government did not think mediation was necessary. Some British media outlets slammed Clinton.

“With friends like these: Hillary Clinton wades into the Falklands row ... and backs the Argentinians,” ran a headline in the Daily Mail tabloid, while the London Times’ take was, “Argentina celebrates diplomatic coup as Hillary Clinton calls for talks over Falklands.”

President Bush’s position on the Falklands was not tested, since it was a relatively low-profile issue for the Argentine government during most of his time in office.

When he hosted then Argentine President Fernando de la Rua at the White House in April 2001, no reporter brought up the Falklands during their joint appearance.

When Bush visited Buenos Aires for a Summit of the Americas four years later, the subject again did not come up once in any public setting – including during press appearances and interviews with U.S. and foreign media.

While campaigning for the presidency in 2007, Fernandez promised to intensify Argentina’s sovereignty claim over “Las Malvinas.”

Bush’s final address to the U.N. General Assembly, in September 2008, coincided with Fernandez’ first speech to the world body, which she used in part to call for international support for her country's claim of sovereignty over the Falklands.

A British decision in 2010 to allow exploratory oil drilling 60 miles north of the islands deepened the dispute, with Argentina saying the move violated a U.N. resolution prohibiting unilateral development in disputed waters. Britain insisted the move was fully within international law.

Buenos Aires won widespread backing from Latin American leaders, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declaring that in the event of another war over the islands, Argentina would “not be alone like it was” in 1982.