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What can Argentina gain from another Falklands dispute?

Thursday, March 4, 2010; A20

YOU KNOW that an Argentine leader must be in political trouble if the subject of the Falkland Islands has come up again. In this case the beleaguered president is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose populist administration in Buenos Aires has lost the support of most of the country. Hosting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Buenos Aires on Monday, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner requested that the United States mediate Argentina's dispute with Britain over the islands, which lie about 400 miles off Argentina's southern coast but have been governed from London since 1833.

Ms. Clinton responded by urging the two sides to talk, while wisely sidestepping the mediation suggestion. Such studied neutrality is in keeping with traditional U.S. policy on the Falklands -- though it's worth remembering that mistaken interpretation of signals from Washington helped produce Argentina's disastrous 1982 invasion. In this case, it's hard to see why the Obama administration should throw any lifelines to Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, who hasn't shrunk from playing to anti-American sentiment around the region.

Ms. Fernández de Kirchner is not threatening force, and she points to a provocation -- the arrival in the islands' territorial waters of a British company's oil rig. Most experts seem to be skeptical that the drilling will produce a big find. But the president has seized on the episode to stoke the curious jingoism that the islands inspire in her country. The weirdness lies in the fact that there is no modern history of an Argentine connection to the "Malvinas," as they are called in Buenos Aires. The 3,000-odd inhabitants are mostly descendants of immigrants from Britain, and they overwhelmingly support continued British rule. That means that Argentina's claim that the territory should be "decolonized" into its hands is fundamentally at odds with the principle of self-determination.

Were oil to be found in the Falklands, Argentina could be a prime beneficiary, if it could set aside its senseless nationalism. Its ports and firms could provide a staging ground and supplies for the industry. Even better, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner could persuade oil firms to begin exploration in Argentina's coastal waters, which are empty of the rigs now lining up off the coast of Brazil. This, of course, would require the Argentine government to regain the confidence of foreign investors it has driven off with its toxic mix of populism and crony capitalism. For Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, it's easier to make speeches about colonialism -- even if they don't bring much return.

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