Hillary Clinton has ruled out a run for the White House after serving as Secretary of State. I hope she’s at least equally clear that she shouldn’t follow Tom DeLay onto the set of Dancing With The Stars; if her experiences on her recent trip to Buenos Aires are any guide, the tango isn’t her kind of event.
Let’s be clear on this: Hillary Clinton is one of our strongest secretaries of state in a long time, generally executing her difficult responsibilities in a way that does credit to her and to the country she represents. But by (apparently) calling for talks between Britain and Argentina on the future of the disputed Falkland Islands (the Argentines call them the Malvinas), and offering her good offices to bring the two countries together, Secretary Clinton made a misstep. It not only offends and even outrages public opinion in our closest ally; it encourages and enables exactly the kind of foolish political grandstanding in Argentina that helps keep that country frustrated and poor despite its extraordinary natural resources, its talented population and a culture and way of life that ensures that everyone who visits the country falls in love with it.
For those who don’t devote their leisure hours to the study of obscure territorial disputes in the remotest corners of the earth, the Falkland Islands (or, for the Argentines, the Malvinas), are a rough and rugged group of close to 800 mostly tiny and uninhabited islands in the wild South Atlantic wastes off the Patagonian coastlands near the southern tip of South America. Seized from a weak and distracted Argentina by good old fashioned naked British imperialism in 1833 (an event described by Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle), the islands were settled by misguided Welsh and Scottish immigrants over the decades and about 3,100 of their descendants live there today.
The Argentines, who have a national fondness for lost causes and old territorial claims, never accepted the British occupation of the islands. In 1982 their thuggish and vicious military dictators attacked; after a brief but bloody war, Britain defeated the poorly equipped and disastrously led Argentines. The military government had hoped that popular enthusiasm for the war would cause the Argentines to overlook its record of torture, murder, incompetence and corruption. That seemed to work at the beginning, but as Argentina’s defeat became steadily more apparent, public opinion turned against the generals, and the dictatorship fell to be replaced by a disappointing run of bad civilian presidents lasting to the present.
The British position, which is both clear and right, is that regardless of whatever happened in 1833, no changes can be made to the status of the islands without the consent of the people who live there. Argentina has renounced the use of force to settle the dispute, but maintains its claim to the islands — and raising the claim remains an attractive way for floundering Argentine politicians to whip up public support even as they continue to lead the country in unsustainable and destructive directions. Argentina wants “negotiations” with Britain over the issue of sovereignty; Britain has maintained that there is nothing to negotiate. The United States has historically been publicly neutral but really pro-British; that pretty much remains our stand today.
Lately Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been experiencing a political condition that is unfortunately a common one in Argentine history. After years of buying popularity with unsound economic policies and government giveaways, she’s losing her support as it becomes harder to pay for new programs. She’s already taken over the country’s private pension industry to get more cash for government programs; more recently the head of the Central Bank quit rather than follow her orders to use the Central Bank’s reserves for short term purposes. She found somebody new for the job, but the increasingly obvious disarray of her economic policies has undermined her popularity. Her political allies have just lost control of the country’s Senate. Meanwhile, the government has launched an attack on the country’s largest media company. The government says this is for virtuous antitrust purposes, but not many people believe it.
Thank God for the Malvinas, then. President Kirchner has been doing everything she can to focus Argentine attention on the issue. The UN, the new association of Latin American countries that excludes the US and Canada: everywhere she can she’s trying to generate news coverage of her campaign.
To be fair to President Kirchner, something new is taking place on the islands. Geologists have long believed there is oil under the seas around the islands; the British government has given drillers the go-ahead to start looking. If oil is found, it’s going to be harder than ever to convince the 3,100 islanders that what they need to do is pay taxes to incompetent and corrupt Argentine politicians. To some degree, President Kirchner needed to raise the issue just to get Argentina on record stating its views; to be silent would essentially abandon Argentina’s claim to sovereignty and that is something no Argentine politician can do.
This is the quagmire into which Secretary Clinton inadvertently stepped. Technically, her remarks were nothing new; the United States has long been willing to mediate in a dispute between two friends — if asked by both sides. But the qualification somehow got downplayed. The impression this created is that the United States is siding against our closest ally and with a floundering, unpopular Argentine president who has a poor and even anti-American track record in many ways. It is a pointless piece of pandering; the United States will get nothing concrete from Argentina in exchange for this step and it does nothing to build a foundation for future US-Argentine relations. Worse, it contributes to a dangerous trend abroad as well as at home. People are starting to think that if you are tough and brutal to this administration — whether you are an ayatollah in Iran or a Republican in the US Senate — you will be civilly and decently treated, but that if you are its friend you will go under the bus.
It’s a small mess in the great scheme of things, but it’s a real one. Secretary Clinton will need to mend fences with the Brits. Substantively, a very level headed article in the Guardian points out that in fact US policy has not changed; the Guardian however is a pro-government newspaper trying to make embattled Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown look strong and globally relevant for his impending, uphill election battle. Tory newspapers have been reveling in the government’s embarrassment, highlighting US neglect of a government they hope to defeat. Secretary Clinton has enough real issues on her plate without distractions like this.
None of this counts as “smart diplomacy.” The Patagonian Pander was never going to work; as the Guardian correctly pointed out, there is no way that the United States will really shift its position on this issue — and especially now, when Britain’s help in Afghanistan matters so much to us. The Argentines, while milking Clinton’s statement for all the political and propaganda they can, know this as well as anyone else. They will not be fooled and are perhaps a little insulted that we tried to beguile them with such a cheap trick. President Kirchner’s increasingly powerful political opponents will not thank us for giving her a propaganda coup at this critical time, nor will President Kirchner provide any real help to the United States or Secretary Clinton in return. Outside Argentina, the message will also reverberate: America is rattled and on the run, hunting for friends in all the wrong places.
Secretary Clinton’s Latin American trip was not a success. The Patagonian Pander was followed by the much more important Rio Rebuff, as Brazil’s President Lula refused to back Secretary Clinton’s request for help on Iranian sanctions at the Security Council. These were not isolated snafus. From Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, our Latin America policy is breaking down. The Secretary of State now needs to find out what has gone wrong and ask some tough questions of the advisers who got her into this mess.