Thursday, June 7, 2007

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982 and ignited the Falklands War with Great Britain, many commentators saw the conflict as something of a quaint historical anomaly, a “throwback” campaign reminiscent of 19th century “petty scrapes” imperial Britain engaged in when the sun never set on its globe-circling empire.

The war ended on June 14, 1982, making this month the 25th anniversary of its conclusion.

Unfortunately, lingering historical land claims continue to figure in the calculations of contemporary despots.

The Falklands War serves as a historical sketch of a dangerous gambit.

Scarred by its own dirty war of death squads and terrorists, and nagged by a sclerotic economy, the Argentine military dictatorship led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri decided a war with Great Britain would shift domestic attention from its failures and malfeasance. With the battle cry, “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (the Falklands are Argentine, Malvinas being the Argentine name for the islands), the junta launched an “anti-imperialist” international confrontation. In the context of the Cold War, the anti-Western, anti-imperialism pitch resonated with the Russians’ network of friendly propagandists.

Britain countered the Argentine invasion with a remarkable naval and amphibious task force that sailed some 8,000 miles to the war zone. The Royal Navy faced sustained and deadly air attacks, as Argentine aircraft struck with bombs and anti-ship missiles. A British brigade finally landed and defeated the Argentine occupiers. It was no Gilbert and Sullivan affair or splendid little war: 255 British and 649 Argentine servicemen died in battle.

Argentina’s Falklands-Malvinas quest isn’t quite over. In 2006, it began a new diplomatic drive to gain control of the islands. Argentina still bases its claim to the islands on geographic proximity and historical ties, but this time it has enlisted the support of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Argentina emphasizes that its current efforts to “reclaim” the islands are political, not military.

Not so for Mr. Chavez. Never one to shy from inflammatory rhetoric and violent risks, Mr. Chavez has added land claims to his list of grievances with neighboring states — and he rattles sabers.

Though domestic rancor is increasing in Venezuela — a vague echo of Argentina in 1982 — an expansionary ideology and explosive ego propel Mr. Chavez. He styles himself as the new Simon Bolivar, who will reunite the South American continent while cowing the United States and other imperialists. He also bills himself as the 21st century’s Fidel Castro.

Mr. Chavez is buying a modern air force and expanding his navy. Venezuela may purchase up to nine Russian submarines.

Why? Mr. Chavez says he needs the hardware to defeat a U.S. invasion. The military might also gives Venezuela the ability to enforce land claims against Colombia, Guyana and Holland — yes, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, still sovereign on the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire, located just off the Venezuelan mainland.

Mr. Chavez isn’t stupid — he knows Argentina lost its Falklands gamble. But he also knows that Britain’s Falkland victory was more of a “near thing” than many think. Argentine combat aircraft could just reach the Falklands, while Venezuelan fighters could easily strike the Antilles.

With the Falklands in mind, Holland has garrisoned the islands with a small naval force and an infantry battalion supported by a half-dozen F-16 fighter jets and helicopters.

In a March 8, 2007, article, concluded geography, oil power and military hardware give Venezuela a huge tactical and operational advantage over the Dutch. Venezuela could take the islands, and the Dutch “lack the ability to retake the islands on their own.”

The smart bet is that a Falklands redux is not in the cards. Mr. Chavez will shadow box because it pays in cash. His bombastic threats spike oil prices, which benefits his regime.

But the Falklands War demonstrates that when dealing with caudillos, the military “what if” must never be dismissed.

What happens if Mr. Chavez calculates that a Bolivar-like “liberation” of the islands from the prison of European colonial oppression would galvanize support for him throughout Latin America?

Outlandish, grandiose and delusional? Twenty-five years ago, Argentina’s dictatorship concluded the risks of outlandish action were worth the grand rewards.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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