Leading article: Ease up on Argentina

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You could have heard the grinding of teeth in Number 10 yesterday as Downing Street rejected the offer of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to act as a facilitator in the British and Argentinian dispute over oil drilling around the Falklands Islands. "It is our position that this is a matter to be resolved between the UK and Argentina," said Mrs Clinton, at the start of a visit to Latin America. "If we can be of any help in facilitating such an effort, we stand ready to do so."

To which the Prime Minister's spokesman retorted: "We welcome the support of the Secretary of State in terms of ensuring that we continue to keep diplomatic channels open but there is no need for that." Which is diplospeak for saying, "thanks, but no thanks". Or, to put it in the language of officials and ministers: "What we need from the US, and have every right to expect considering our support for Washington in Iraq and Afghanistan, is wholehearted approval of our position not a distancing act of neutrality."

You can understand Downing Street's irritation. There's an election in the offing. British sovereignty over the Falklands is an absolute. No British prime minister is going even to hint at compromise on an issue on which we went to war and won. The US stance, although not very different from that taken by the US State Department at the time of the Falklands invasion in 1982, is a derogation of the duties of friendship.

But, election imperatives aside, there should be every reason for the UK to take a more emollient approach to Argentina on the off-shore search for oil and gas in the area. With a permanent UK military garrison on the island, Argentina is not going to invade again. Indeed it has specifically ruled out any such action on its part. While retaining our right of sovereignty, however, we could do far more to open up drilling operations to Argentinian companies and co-operations.

The other lesson from this dispute is a harder one. It is that Britain's continuing search for American favour, and a return for its efforts on their behalf, simply misunderstands our importance in Washington's view of the world. We are useful but only one factor in their appreciation of their own interests in Latin America. The sooner we comprehend that, the better.

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