Saturday, August 23, 2008

Georgia and the Malvinas/Falklands (Updated)

Leopoldo Galtieri: the Mikheil Saakashvili of 1982?

Oscar Raúl Cardoso makes an interesting comparison in Un paralelismo con Malvinas Clarín 12.08.2008 between the decision of the Argentine military junta in 1982 to seize the British Falkland Islands, called the Malvinas in Argentina. He asks if Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may have made the same mistake in attacking Russian positions in South Ossetia that the junta made in attacking the Malvinas: thinking that the Americans would support them and have their back if they got in trouble.

Cordoso writes that the Georgia-Russia conflict "para los argentinos sugirió una melodía ya escuchada hace más de dos décadas, cuando todavía eran gobernados por una dictadura militar." (... for Argentines suggested a melody that they heard more than two decades ago, when they were still governed by a military dictatorship).

In the early 1980s, the newly elected President Ronald Reagan was in his more aggressively confident phase of his foreign policy. He basically turned over Central American policy to the neoconservatives. Their conduct of that policy was a template in a surprising number of ways for the worldwide disaster we know today as the Cheney-Bush foreign policy.

There was a civil war in El Salvador that the neocons imagined to be an effort by the Soviet Union to take over Central America. Reagan regarded the Sandinista government in Nicaragua as basically a Soviet satellite already. He was eager to finance the murderous terrorists brave freedom fighters known as the Contras, a reactionary group of former members of dictator Anastoza Somoza's hated National Guard.

The Argentine junta was a key player in supporting the Contras. They were the first government granted a formal visit to Reagan after his inauguration as President. Argentina's murderous junta, which killed tens of thousands (at least) of its own citizens' in its "dirty war" against rebels and dissidents, had been a target of criticism for the Carter administration human rights policy. Carter had cut off military aid to the junta over human rights concerns. Back in those days, the United States still had some credibility in the world on the subject of international law and human rights. [Clarification 08/28/08: Credible estimates of the number of "disappeared during the junta's rule range from around 11,000 to 30,000, the latter figure probably closer to accurate.]

Reagan had opposed that policy, determined to embrace rightwing dictatorships like Argentina's to fight Communism, revolution and generally any protest that might disturb the comfort of American multinational corporations. So he was making a show of welcoming the junta's representatives in Washington to signal pro-American dictators everywhere that torture and murder was okay by his administration. He resumed military aid. Though in those long-ago days the notion that the US government would be engaging directly and officially in sick, sadistic torture as a proud matter of national policy was a difficult one for most people to picture.

Argentina had claimed - still does - that the Malvinas are Argentine territory. Britain had seized the islands from Buenos Aires in 1833. But Britain occupied the small islands, and recovering them was and is a matter of national pride, though it's very unlikely that Cristina Fernández' administration will go to war over Britain about them.

(Not that she's ignoring them, either. Earlier this month, her government requested that the Vatican include the Malvinas in a diocese they were planning to set up in the province of Tierra del Fuego. Her government wanted the Vatican to include the Malvinas in the diocese. The province in the eyes of Argentina has jurisdiction over the islands, and the Vatican under its arrangements with Argentina requires the government's approval to establish a new diocese. The Vatican decided to drop the plan for the new diocese rather than get tangled in the Malvinas question. See Llega el canciller del Papa y se espera que destrabe la creación de una diócesis por Julio Algañaraz Clarín 02.08.2008 and El Vaticano no crea un obispado que iba a excluir a las Malvinas por Julio Algañaraz Clarín 07.08.2008.)

Argentine map of the Malvinas

The junta in 1982 likely saw the war as a way to rally the public around their government. They also thought the occupation of the Malvinas would help in wider territorial claims they were asserting over part of Antarctica. So far as I'm aware, there is no evidence that the Reagan administration explicitly gave them a green light for war, though the junta claimed they had received such assurances. More likely, they saw what they wanted to see in the improvement of relationships with the United States, and figured that their role in supporting Reagan's Central American policy gave them additional cause to expect American assistance with Britain.

In any case, they assumed that Britain would not be willing to undertake direct hostilities against Argentina over the issue. As José Luis Romerto writes in his Breve Historia de la Argentina (1997 edicion):

Los jefes militares concibieron el plan de ocupar militarmente las islas por sorpresa y forzar a los británicaos a una negociación, para lo cual Galtieri confiaba en el apoyo de los Estados Unidos, donde había establicido excelentes relaciones.

[The military leaders conceived the plan to militarily occupy the islands by surprise and force the British to a negotiation, for which Galtieri was confident of the support of the United States, where he had established excellent relations.]
They were wrong. Reagan's administration thought the support of Maggie Thatcher's Britain was more important than the dubious contributions of the Argenine junta. The US did initially try to persuade the junta to abandon the islands in favor of negotiations. But, as Romero writes, "los militares, apresados en su propia rhetórica, estaban imposibilitados de retroceder sin perder todo lo que habían ganado en el orden interno, y aún más." (... the generals, caught in their own rhetoric, found it impossible to retreat without losing everything that they had gained in internal order, and even more.)

Britain did go to war, which the junta had not expected. The US sided diplomatically with Britain, Britain won the war, and the loss of the war was basically the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back for the junta's rule.

Argentine news magazine, Apr 1982: "We saw the British surrendering"

Argentina was supported by most Latin American countries, though Chile provided logistical support to Britain. And the action itself seemed to meet with approval among the Argentine public. Losing the war wasn't nearly so popular. Romero argues that the junta did botch things militarily. And that they had launched the action in ignorance of their basic international position at that time.

In the aftermath, Galtieri turned the presidency over to General Reynaldo Bignone, and the junta scheduled democratic elections for October, 1983. The new civilian government under President Raúl Alfonsín began the "transition to democracy".

Cardoso also points to some of the obvious differences between the Georgia-Russia conflict in 2008 and the Falklands War of 1982:

Las situaciones de los 80 en el Atlántico Sur y el presente vuelven a encontrar puntos de contacto porque en ambos conflictos está en carne viva la cuestión de la soberanía territorial. Georgia considera que Osetia del Sur y Abjazia, en el Cáucaso - dos repúblicas rebeldes -, son parte de su territorio, y Saakashvili ha hecho de su recuperación el principal objetivo de su gobierno. Pero en el caso del Cáucaso está en juego la certeza con que Moscú ve a esa región como su muy propia área de hegemonía y está dispuesta a mantenerla a cualquier costo. La entonces Unión Soviética ocupó Georgia desde 1921 hasta los 90, resistiendo inclusive un alzamiento en 1924. La operación militar rusa que primero ocupó Osetia del Sur y ahora prosigue en territorio de Georgia parece, además de todo, un recordatorio ruso de la voluntad de Moscú de no ser desafiado en su rol de potencia militar.

[The situations of the 1980s in the South Atlantic and the present have similarities because in both conflicts the question of territorial sovereignty was an urgent passion. {The phrase "en carne viva" literally means "in living flesh".} Georgia considers South Osetia and Abkhasia, in the Caucuses - two rebellious republics - part of its territory, and Saakashvili has made their recovery the principle object of his government. But in the case of the Caucuses, part of the reality is that Moscow views this region as its own area of hegemony and is ready to maitain it at any price. The former Soviet Union occupied Georgia from 1921 to the 1990s, resisting even with a revolt in 1924. The Russian military operation that first occupied South Osetia and now is proceeding into the territory of Georgia appears, in addition to everthing, a reminder of Moscow's intention to not be challenged in its role as military power.]
But there is very likely to have been some similar miscalculation at work for Georgia now and Argentina then. Although Bush officials deny giving Georgia any green light to attack Russian forces in South Osetia, we also know from years of experience that this administration can be much less than candid about such matters. Also, given what we know already about Dick Cheney's rogue foreign policy operations, the influence and shady dealings of the neocons, and the prominence of Randy Scheunemann in McCain's campaign (Sheunemann was still being paid as a lobbyist for the Republic of Georgia when he was working for McCain campaign), it's entirely possible that Saakashvili was getting some explicit signals. We do know that the Cheney-Bush administration had embraced Georgia as a military partner, though the US has no defense treaty with Georgia, and that alone could have provided material for an ambitious nationalist politician to assume he would get more American support.

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