Will the Falkland Islands come between the UK and US?

LONDON, United Kingdom — The “special relationship” between Britain and the United States has come under scrutiny here recently because of differences of opinion between the allies about a windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean claimed by both Britain and Argentina.

Known to the United Kingdom as the Falkland Islands and to Argentina as Las Malvinas, the tiny British dependency shot onto front pages in Buenos Aires and London when a British oil rig arrived last month and anchored 60 miles north of the islands to begin exploration drilling in waters included in the islands’ economic zone.

The affair has ignited intense emotions in Argentina, 300 miles away. More than 600 Argentine soldiers and seamen died in the two-month war fought with Britain in 1982, when the U.K. sent a war fleet and marine brigade 8,000 miles down the length of the Atlantic to attack and expel the Argentine force that had seized the islands.

The pride of the Argentine navy, the cruiser General Belgrano, was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine Conqueror, with 323 lives lost.

In Britain, too, the conflict has the power to rake up strong feelings. More than 250 Britons died in the fighting to retake the islands, and the Royal Navy lost a destroyer and a frigate to missile and bomb attacks by the Argentine air force.

Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to allow the islands to be taken, and the patriotic fervor she stirred up in support of the campaign, restored her own teetering fortunes and returned her government to power on a tide of nationalism in elections the next year.

Like Thatcher in 1982, the Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is thought by some to be whipping up her countrymen’s patriotism as a distraction from domestic problems — in Argentina’s case, the economy and corruption scandals.

So where does the U.S. come in? British leaders paid a high political and military price to support the U.S. in the Iraq war, in defiance of many of their citizens. Despite their government's protestations, Britons view the Iraq campaign as a war fought largely in support of the "special relationship," and are keenly sensitive about how Washington repays that support. Apparently it is not to be repaid with support for the U.K. in the Falklands dispute.

America is no more anxious to take Britain’s side today than it was in 1982. At that time, however, Britain was prepared to prosecute a war, and Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, convinced the president that it was unthinkable to allow the Americans’ closest ally to go to war unsupported.

This time the war is so far one of words, and the Obama administration, to the dismay of British leaders, has demonstrated that its sympathies may lie with Argentina.

British diplomats were furious when a senior U.S. spokesman, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley, answered a Feb. 25 press question about the Falklands with the phrase: “Or the Malvinas, depending on how you see it.”

Widely reported in Britain this week, the remarks by Crowley increased the resentment already felt over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer last week in Buenos Aires to help broker the talks on island sovereignty demanded by the Argentines.

Britain sees no need for talks. Calling the Clinton offer a “diplomatic coup” for Argentina, the venerable London Times restated the British position that there should be “no negotiations unless the islands’ 3,000 inhabitants asked for them.”

There are warring accounts of who owned what and when, but the U.K. rests its claim on 177 years of unbroken occupation and the desire of islanders to remain British.

According to Lucy Robinson, an historian at the University of Sussex and an expert on the Falklands war, the sentiments of the British public are more connected to the men who fought to retake the islands than to issues of legal ownership.

"Since the 25th anniversary of the war in 2007,” Robinson said, “there’s been a much stronger focus on Falklands veterans, and the focus is not on political issues so much as on soldiers."

Some of the men who re-took the islands suffered horrendous injuries, and there were charges at the time that they had not been well-enough equipped. The same doubts are now expressed about troops fighting in Afghanistan, and the steady return from the battlefield of flag-draped coffins brings silent crowds of Britons into the streets.

"People are really aware of what’s happening [with British forces] in Afghanistan," said Robinson, "so there’s an increased awareness of the high price that soldiers pay. The Falklands has a big place in those thoughts."