Honduras President Zelaya with his pal Chavez.
President Obama, at first “deeply concerned” about the ouster of Honduras President Manuel Zelaya, has now said the “coup was not legal” and sets a terrible precedent of transition by military force. Despite Obama’s comments, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration hadn’t formally designated the ouster as a coup, which would trigger a cut-off of American aid to the Central American nation.
I agree with the President up to a point – transition by military force is a bad precedent to set, as the rule of law must stand in democratic nations. However, I see missing from any analysis a few simple facts: the actions of the military were authorized by the Supreme Court of Honduras, and power was promptly returned to civilian hands once Zelaya was out of the country. In addition, Zelaya was attempting to go forward with an explicitly illegal referendum that would have allowed him to run for longer than the Honduras Constitution allows (which is to say, not at all). The actions yesterday might be better termed, as Ed Morrisey calls it, “military impeachment.” The rule of law, it might be argued, was actually carried out in Honduras, albeit by a method we wouldn’t like to see become standard.
Simply reinstalling Zelaya would be a grave mistake, as Zelaya’s actions were opposed by the judiciary, the legislature, the military, and a majority of Zelaya’s own party. What seems sensible would be to return Zelaya to Honduras to stand trial or whatever impeachment proceedings would be necessary to “legitimize” the removal of the President who seems to have broken Honduran law. And elections are still scheduled to happen in November, making this a temporary situation that could go away if it doesn’t boil over.
There’s a curious nature to the full-throated denunciation of Zelaya’s ouster by Obama when coupled with his timid response to the Iranian democracy protests. While I appreciate on one level that “meddling” in Iran could be seen as destructive American interference, supportive words cost nothing, and the CIA is being blamed in Iran and Honduras regardless anyway. It’s why the “meddling” in this case doesn’t jive with the previous position, and it doesn’t jive with Latin American countries looking askance at the Monroe Doctrine and American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. And the media has been awfully quick to name this straight-up a “coup” with all the accompanying violent connotations (absent in this case), without substantial mention of the mitigating circumstances that say that Zelaya might not have been such a great guy for Honduras after all. The potential reason might be to give a situation for Obama to look tough on foreign matters after bungling his response to Iran, but that’s just speculation on my part.
I’d urge the President to dial back on the illegality rhetoric (which, again, doesn’t seem to be such a big deal for Iran) and focus merely on the bad precedent for military action. He need not put himself squarely in the corner of a leftist President clearly interested in aggregating more power for himself – unfortunately, that’s exactly what he seems to be doing as the goal seems to be to get Zelaya back in charge. It’s a stance that puts him in agreement with Hugo Chavez, who has threatened military action, and it’s a side Obama frankly shouldn’t be on, especially in this case when the waters are murkier than most people think.