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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

August Macke, "Portrait of the artist's wife with a hat," 1909. Via Wikimedia.

August Macke, “Portrait of the artist’s wife with a hat,” 1909. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

James Simpson recounts how a 29 year old Soviet fighter pilot defected by flying his MiG-25 interceptor to Japan, revealing the feared aircraft’s capabilities. Japanese authorities returned the MiG to the USSR in pieces, and “cheekily, the Japanese included a bill for $4o,000 to cover the shipping costs and damage” caused by the pilot’s wild landing.

David E. Hoffman discusses the 1983 “Able Archer” NATO exercise, which a paranoid Soviet leadership nearly interpreted as preparations for an unprovoked nuclear strike (via Erik Loomis).

Somewhat relatedly, Dave Majumdar questions the wisdom of Russia’s ambitious efforts to acquire and develop a diverse mix of different combat aircraft.

Médecins Sans Frontières has released their initial report on the early October US attack on a Afghanistan hospital that killed dozens of patients and MSF staff.

In an interview with the Washington PostColombian president Juan Manuel Santos praises the US’ Colombia policy: “I can say without the slightest doubt it has been the United States’ most successful bipartisan foreign policy of the past several decades. The peace process is just the cherry on the cake.” Flagging the interview, Boz writes that the US “should be as willing (or more willing) to provide economic and development aid to consolidate peace as we were to provide military and security assistance when Colombia’s conflict threatened the country’s stability.”

The continuing tragedy of the Middle East’s minority communities: more and more Christians flee Iraq, increasingly intending never to return. “Even if the situation in Iraq gets better, no matter how safe it is, there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again,” says one refugee.

After the death of Ahmed Chalabi this week, many are reflecting on his responsibility for the Iraq war. Despite George W. Bush’s ignorance and warmongering enthusiasm, Martin Longman writes, he “would not have found it so easy to lead our foreign policy establishment and our nation into war if Ahmed Chalabi hadn’t been going around Washington DC for years telling everyone how simple it would be to get rid of Saddam” (via Ed Kilgore). In response to a piece by Aram Roston, on Twitter Matt Duss remarks that “there’s been a very troubling amount of ‘blame the wily foreigner’ in the coverage of Chalabi’s death.” Hannah Allam remembers Chalabi in Iraq during the occupation (via Kelsey D. Atherton).

Despite reaching the nuclear deal this summer, hardliners within the Iranian state are cracking down – often targeting Iranian-Americans – in what appears to be a backlash against President Rouhani’s successes. It’s worth remembering that the risk of these spoiling tactics was anticipated by Rouhani himself (via John Allen Gay), and he has not done much to reduce oppression within Iran (via Melissa Etehad). Barbara Slavin also reports on rights abuses and potential means of pressuring Iran.

Beth Alvarado on groundwater poisoning in Tucson, caused by the chemicals used to clean airplanes:

“Clear patterns didn’t emerge, but sometimes several people in one family would die. Finally, the city tested the water. Some estimates showed TCE contamination at 1,000 times the federal health standards. They closed wells. There were court cases. Red lines were drawn around the housing developments, housing developments where 75 percent of the residents were Hispanic and low-income; once the developments were red-lined, it was impossible to sell those houses, so people stayed where they were.”

This is also via Erik Loomis, who comments “that most of the people suffering in this Tucson neighborhood are Latino should be expected as the correlation between pollution exposure and race is well-documented and is a classic example of environmental racism.”

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Argentina’s Elections and the Falklands Dispute

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

On November 22nd Argentines will go to the polls to elect a new president. This presidential runoff, which follows an inconclusive first round held on October 25th, marks the end of an era for Argentina. Since 2003 Argentina has been led by the husband and wife duo of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with Cristina elected in 2007 and again in 2011. (Widely thought to aspire to return to the presidency, Néstor suffered an untimely death in 2010.) With Kirchner constitutionally barred from a third term, many hope the election of a new Argentine president is also an opportunity to wind down Kirchner’s aggressive rhetoric about the disputed Falkland Islands.

Argentina has long claimed the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas and officially views British sovereignty as “a blatant exercise of 19th-Century colonialism,” in Kirchner’s words. Despite earlier tentative steps towards a negotiated solution to the dispute, in 1982 the Argentine military seized the Islands. In the midst of economic stagnation and its murderous “Dirty War” the ruling military junta hoped that a quick victory would boost the regime’s domestic popularity, but seriously misjudged UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to fight. As Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write in their history The Battle for the Falklands, while the UK came far closer to military disaster than is often realized, British forces eventually retook the Falklands. The war left 225 British servicemen, three Falkland civilians, and around 650 Argentines dead, as well as thousands of soldiers scarred mentally and physically by the brutal conflict.

Throughout her tenure Cristina Kirchner has stressed the Falklands issue, arguing that the UK illegally took possession of the Islands in 1833. Kirchner has repeatedly called for dialogue over the Islands’ status in her UN addresses (though not this year), and tied the issue to UN Security Council reform (though Argentina opposes fellow Mercosur member Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat). In 2012 Kirchner “ambushed” British PM David Cameron at the UN with a letter about the issue, and two years later Kirchner commemorated the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s invasion by introducing a new banknote featuring a map of the Falklands. The recent discovery of oil off the Falklands also gave new impetus to Argentina’s push, and Argentina has threatened to sue British oil companies involved in exploration off the Islands – despite the fact that low oil prices are challenging the offshore oil’s commercial viability.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

The ongoing presidential election has centered around economic issues and the legacy of Kirchnerismo, as Kevin Lees chronicles, and despite leaving office Kirchner is expected to remain politically powerful, as Simon Romero and Jonathan Gilbert write. (Indeed, Kirchner is thought to hope to return to the presidency in 2019). But as the Week reports, both of the candidates competing in the runoff election have taken comparatively moderate stances on the Falklands. While insisting that the Islands are rightly Argentina’s, opposition center-right candidate and current Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri wants to improve relations with the UK and “has also signalled that he would abolish the government role of Falklands Secretary, or Malvinas Secretary, created by Kirchner in 2013.” Similarly, the Independent’s David Usborne reports that Kirchner’s preferred successor and Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, who narrowly won the first round, is also expected to “seek to adopt a fresh and less belligerent tone in the hope of bringing Britain to the table.” Despite the wide enthusiasm for the Malvinas cause in Argentina, some see Kirchner’s combativeness as counterproductive, as Usborne’s excellent story notes. “Everyone has the sensation that Argentina gets into these quarrels for no reason … and that’s true with the Malvinas,” says Marcos Novaro, an Argentine think tank director quoted by Usborne. Others disagree, and acknowledge that there little room for mutual reconciliation between Argentina and the UK regardless of Kirchner’s rhetoric.

Whatever their reasons, Macri and Scioli’s apparent moderation is a recognition of reality. After the Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly approved continued British sovereignty in a 2013 referendum it is difficult to see any hope for a diplomatic agreement that meaningfully cedes sovereignty to Argentina — though it was the invasion more than anything else that hardened the British position. For its part, Argentina views the “imported” Islanders’ self-determination as irrelevant.

But beyond diplomatic considerations, Argentina’s lack of diplomatic leverage is compounded by its limited ability to militarily threaten the Islands today. Decades of financial crises have left Argentine military forces decrepit: its aircraft are “barely serviceable” and as of at least 2012 the Navy’s submarines rarely went to sea, falling far short of their required training time. Argentina has vague plans to refurbish its decaying Air Force with new jet fighters but the government’s financial challenges mean that any purchase is likely a way off,* and the UK has the ability to veto most Western fighter sales. These financial challenges are compounded by the low priority Argentina’s civilian leaders assign the military. As a 2014 report by Rowan Allport notes, Kirchner’s “nationalistic tone should not be interpreted as a pro-military stance,” and “the Nestor/Cristina Kirchner era has seen the military fall to near the bottom of Argentina’s spending priorities list.”

However, budget cuts have curtailed Britain’s military capabilities as well, and raised fears that the UK could not longer retake the Falklands. The number of British combat-ready aircraft is falling, and today the UK does not operate an aircraft carrier able to embark fixed-wing aircraft, which would be critical in any renewed conflict over the Falklands. This absence “creates a window of opportunity for Argentina,” in Defense Industry Daily’s words, but “one that will slam shut decisively around 2020” when the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers enter service, though when the ships’ advanced F-35B fighter aircraft will actually be reliably combat-ready is uncertain. However, the UK’s nuclear fast attack submarines would already complicate any Argentine effort to take and hold the Falklands, and would quickly isolate any Argentine invasion force. Indeed, during the Falklands War after a British submarine sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano Argentina kept its single carrier, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, in port, forcing land-based Argentine fighter aircraft to fight at the very limit of their range. The RAF also bases a handful of advanced fighter aircraft on the Falklands, another major barrier to a successful invasion.

Despite Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s unstable style of governance she did not choose to resume hostilities, which now seem even more unlikely through 2019. In addition to Argentina’s military weaknesses, recently events have also dramatically illustrated the downsides of even nearly bloodless territorial annexation. From a military standpoint Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a complete success, but drew widespread condemnation and economic sanctions that have severely damaged the Russian economy. While the two cases are not directly comparable – many of Argentina’s major trading partners would not impose retaliatory sanctions – an invasion’s best possible outcome could still bring diplomatic and economic costs not worth the gain. Pressing the Islas Malvinas issue may be a useful political tool – and a sincere grievance for many Argentines – but its use rests far more on the personality and priorities of Argentina’s president than the actual chances of realizing Argentina’s claim.

*Update (11/10/2015): UK Defense Journal (via Jeremiah Cushman) and Flight Global are reporting that Argentina will soon sign a contract to purchase 14 Kfir fighters from Israel.

Update (11/18/2015): Or maybe not – according to MercoPress (originally via Defesa Aérea & Naval) Clarin reports that the Kfir deal has been frozen, and that there is disagreement among senior Argentine Air Force officers over the aircraft, most of which reportedly are not equipped with radar.