President Obama's diplomatic misadventures have been the stuff of comedy since the earliest days of his administration. Whether he's bowing low to foreign royalty, palling around with banana-republic dictators, or apologizing to our enemies, patriots cringe whenever Air Force One revs its engines. America is not well served by becoming a laughingstock.
There are, however, worse things, and the Obama administration is hard at work finding them.
For a little perspective on the latest blunder, let's think back to the campaign. Was not a favorite anti-Republican attack line condemnation of Bush's "unilateralism"? That Republicans wanted America to do exactly as it pleased all by itself, disregarding whatever the rest of the world might think? In fact, wasn't one of Obama's arguments as to why he needed to be President, that electing him would make foreigners like us better?
Yes, changing faces caused a spike in international relations. Unfortunately, world leaders are not teenage girls or MSNBC anchormen; they don't just fall in love with a pretty face, they expect deeds to match words. What Obama says doesn't matter nearly so much as what he does. And what he is doing, is visibly and coldly betraying our allies.
Most of the British Empire has vanished into history, but England does still own the odd scrap of land here and there. One of these remaining vestiges is the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic off the coast of Argentina.
There's no problem with traditional native inhabitants of the Falklands: there weren't any when European explorers discovered them in the 1500s. The first settlement was founded by the French in 1764, the British showed up the next year, and then the Spanish took over the French. By the early 1800s, the only remaining "authorities" were plaques placed by both England and Spain asserting a claim they were too cheap to do anything further about. Argentina tried to found a colony, got in a fight with the U.S. Navy, and once again there was no clear control.
Finally, in 1833 the British returned in force. They built a navy base and administrative headquarters, breezily telling the Argentines where they could stick their rather tenuous claim. Since then, for many generations, the Falkland Islanders have seen themselves as British as John Bull.
Except briefly in 1982, when after a century and a half of ignoring the place, Argentina abruptly invaded the islands. Unfortunately for the military dictatorship of the time, they'd picked the wrong moment: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in no mood to let go of any more British sovereign territory. The Falkland Island War ended in total defeat for Argentina and a much more powerful British garrison on the islands.
Now, Argentina is at it again. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has announced a sort of bureaucratic blockade of the islands, demanding any ships going there to ask Argentine permission first. Why? Because there may be oil in Falklands waters, the British are trying to drill for it, and the Argentinian government would rather the money go to their struggling economy. In response, the Royal Navy sent warships.
So far, so ordinary - this sort of thing has happened countless times throughout history and doubtless will continue as long as human nature remains what it is. This also is exactly why even powerful countries like to have allies.
We in the United States may not hear about it very often, but British soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside Americans. They've been there since Day One.
The political price paid back in their home was if anything greater than the disdain George W. Bush suffered at the hands of the media; previously beloved Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to resign after the public mood soured, and Gordon Brown is almost as despised. Both are testifying before an inquiry into their supposed war crimes and lies, a fate unlikely ever to befall Mr. Bush.
What did England get for their loyalty? Nothing really; they have their own North Sea oil, and are not nearly as dependent on Middle East sources as we are. Yet Mr. Blair was absolutely confident that staying the very closest international friend of the United States was worth any price, in money or in blood.
Now comes the time for us to be loyal to our loyal friend. And what happens? The Obama administration announces that America is neutral in the dispute between England and Argentina.
Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton goes, not to England to vow our support, but to Argentina to make nice! Again, our media are totally ignoring the existence of these events, but the Brits are screaming betrayal; rightly so.
It's all the more inexplicable when you consider that, to invade, the Argentines would have to mount a seaborne amphibious assault. They did this successfully (albeit temporarily) in 1982, but they're not exactly a major power. An American navy task group in the area would totally eliminate any serious possibility of conflict. In fact, this is a perfect example of the most important lesson Barack Obama has yet to learn: by making a credible threat of force, you can often avoid the need to actually use that force.
In his defense, Mr. Obama's aides point out that Ronald Reagan was neutral in 1982. This is, unfortunately, partially correct - Reagan did indeed proclaim neutrality, try to resolve the dispute diplomatically, and didn't send any American forces. We regard this as one of Mr. Reagan's mistakes. But once the shooting started, he supported the British in all ways other than American lives.
American neutrality can lead directly to American deaths. Remember back when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait? Apparently he had tried to feel out the local American ambassador, who had no instructions on the subject and had no real reaction.
Hussein took this to mean that America really didn't care which autocrat was running what, and that he was free to invade his neighbor. He turned out to be quite profoundly wrong on this point, but if our ambassador had made it plain that aggression would be met with deadly force, he probably wouldn't have tried it and would have saved us all a great deal of trouble.
There hasn't been any shooting yet, so it's possible that Mr. Obama is following the same mistaken path as Mr. Reagan and intends to stand by our ally after a period of dithering. Let's hope so - because if he really, truly intends to stay neutral, we will instantly lose our only major fighting ally of great significance in Afghanistan and Iraq. The British would withdraw of course; their first job is to defend British sovereign territory which is what the Falklands are.
That would leave our wars as virtually what the Democrats falsely portrayed them as under George W. Bush: an Americans-only imperial adventure. What's more, where Candidate Obama campaigned against Bush's supposed disrespect to our allies and loss of their confidence, President Obama would have showed real, substantive disrespect and confidence-betrayal in a way that nobody could ever imagine Mr. Bush doing. Wouldn't that be ironic?
Someday, we will again be in need of allies - and we won't have any.