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The Falklands War and other global gaffes

Commentary: How Obama’s leadership could thwart a future war.
Falklands britain argentina 2012 4 3Enlarge
Argentinian demonstrators burn a British Union Jack flag in a protest near the British Embassy in Buenos Aires on April 2, 2012 as Britain and Argentina marked 30 years since an Argentine invasion of the Falklands Islands triggered a bloody 74-day war, amid renewed tensions between the two countries. (Daniel Garcia /AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON, Massachusetts — Thirty years have passed since Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, only to be thrown back by a British Armada. The war seemed a throwback to slower days. A British fleet had to be assembled and dispatched at flank speed. But the pace was majestic compared to the few minutes warning Moscow or Washington would have gotten before death arrived if they had ever gone to war.

There was time for reflection and negotiation in the Falklands conflict. We know now that the American Secretary of State Alexander Haig was engaged in negotiations between Buenos Aires and London, seeking terms not as favorable to Britain as the Defense Department and CIA wanted. Defense and the CIA ultimately prevailed as the Argentine junta wouldn’t compromise. America eventually tilted towards Britain.

Why did the Argentines make such a miscalculation as to what Britain’s reaction would be? No doubt they under-estimated Margaret Thatcher. But Britain was a shadow of what it had been at the height of its imperial power. The Argentines thought there was a reasonable chance they could get away with it, and that the United States would not intervene. They were right on the latter, but not on the former.

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Another theory is that the British were thinking about the future of their remaining shards of empire in those days. There was talk about a settlement with Spain over Gibraltar. Talks were going on with China about the future of Hong Kong, which ultimately returned to Chinese sovereignty. The Argentines may have thought: "If the British are thinking about getting rid of their dependencies they won’t really object if we just take one of them, certainly not to the point of going to war. After all, colonialism is dead. India took Goa away from Portugal. Indonesia invaded East Timor under the banner of anti-colonialism, and no one in the West cared. Why not snatch this morsel from the toothless lion?"

The lion had some teeth left, after all, but it was a near thing. If all the Exocet missiles that Argentine planes launched at British ships had exploded, the British might easily have lost the war. Luckily for Britain, the Argentines were inexpert at arming them.

In the Falklands, the national prestige of both nations was involved. If successful, the junta would have been cheered from every roof top in Argentina. Instead, they made Margaret Thatcher’s reputation and furthered her career as she, also riding the white horse of nationalism, became the longest serving prime minister in British history.

It was not unlike the miscalculation that Saddam Hussein made two decades ago after meeting with US Ambassador April Glaspie. He was trying to determine if America would really mind him taking Kuwait, and he misread Glaspie’s reaction when they met in July of 1990, just before the invasion.

Glaspie asked him why Iraqi troops were massing on the Kuwait border, and, although there are conflicting versions of the conversation, it is certain that Saddam did not take from the meeting that the United States would go to war over his grab. After all, had not the United States tilted towards Iraq in its war with Iran? And was not the US trying to deepen and broaden its relationship with Iraq?

His grab for western Iran in the 1980s bled his country for eight years without any territorial gain.

Saddam’s miscalculation that the US would not invade in 2003 was of a different nature. He thought George W. Bush would not invade because of opposition from France and Germany. He could have saved his skin by opening up all his nuclear facilities to inspection, and shown the world there was nothing there. But then he believed that his prestige rested on having a nuclear weapons program, and to admit that there was nothing in that dark closet would have been too much of a humiliation.

Of course when you lose a war that you have started, it always looks like a miscalculation. Revisionists may natter on about how we really had the Vietnam war won in 1974 if only this, and if only that. But the fact that we lost Vietnam is the ultimate argument that the whole fiasco was a miscalculation.

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The Japanese miscalculated big time when they bombed Pearl Harbor. They gambled that we would pull in our horns and let them have South East Asia if they bloodied our nose, even though Admiral Yamamoto knew otherwise and said so.

The Germans, too, miscalculated when they invaded Russia before eliminating Great Britain, bringing down on themselves the two-front war that German chiefs of staff had long warned against. Hitler followed in the footsteps of Napoleon when it came to Russia. Hubris always plays a role in the great miscalculations of history. Today Argentines are being stirred up again over the islands they call the Malvinas. This time Argentina is not threatening war, but then Britain no longer has the navy it had in 1982. Britain has less capacity now to defend the islands.

Therefore, to avoid another miscalculation, remote as it may be, the Obama administration should make it absolutely clear that the United States believes in self determination, and that as long as the Falkland islanders wish to remain British the US will not countenance any attempt to change the status quo by force. 

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