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Chavez, Honduras, and Obama

James Taranto points to a strange story in yesterday’s New York Times by Simon Romero praising President Obama for getting the better of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in his deft handling of the situation in Honduras:

From the moment the coup in Honduras unfolded over the weekend, President Hugo Chávez had his playbook ready. He said Washington’s hands may have been all over the ouster, claiming that it financed President Manuel Zelaya’s opponents and insinuating that the C.I.A. may have led a campaign to bolster the putschists.

But President Obama firmly condemned the coup, defusing Mr. Chávez’s charges. Instead of engaging in tit-for-tat accusations, Mr. Obama calmly described the coup as “illegal” and called for Mr. Zelaya’s return to office. While Mr. Chávez continued to portray Washington as the coup’s possible orchestrator, others in Latin America failed to see it that way.

If your goal in crafting American foreign policy is to become more popular among the world’s bad actors, (believing that by doing so they will behave less badly), then, yes, Obama has been thus far successful in his policy on the Honduran crisis. Such pusillanimity has been characteristic of this administration, from the President’s Cairo speech that flattered the Arab narrative of 1948, to its very public attacks on Israeli “natural growth,” to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pushing the “reset” button with Putin’s Russia. As for Honduras? Congratulations America, you are now on the same side as Chavez, the Castro brothers and other anti-American regional thugs. Meanwhile, we’re undermining the forces of democracy in that tiny country, particularly its courts and Congress, which both moved against President Manuel Zelaya’s attempts to subvert the constitution.

But while administration policy made Chavez’s predictable claims of U.S. subversion more difficult — if not impossible — to mount, the Venezuelan autocrat has quickly changed his tune to adapt to the new situation. He is, after all, a wily man, quick and able to respond to ever-changing situations; it’s one of the reasons he has stayed in power for so long. Though his public opposition to the “coup” might have thrown Chavez off for a day or so, it didn’t take long for the caudillo of Caracas to reorient himself, and now Obama is playing directly into Chavez’s hands. Ranting about American imperialism just a few days ago, Chavez — evidently delighted by his newfound friend in the White House — now says that Zelaya should score a meeting with Obama when he’s in Washington as such a photo-op would “deliver a major blow” to the interim government in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital. Indeed, it would.

So let’s concede Romero’s point that Obama has “outmaneuvered” Chavez by escaping the traditional role of the president serving as a pinata for an anti-American leader. That’s very good for Obama’s self-esteem (recall the president’s relief, expressed in a speech at the April Summit of the Americas following an hours-long tirade from Daniel Ortega, that the Nicaraguan strongman “did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old”) but what have we gotten in return? U.S. interests in the region are not being served by continued international isolation of Honduras’s interim government, nor would they be served by restoring to power an anti-American authoritarian like Zelaya, who has approval ratings of less than 30%. Yet that’s what American policy supports. Instead of leading on this issue, we’re following, and following the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez at that. But, hey, it’s nice to have these guys saying nice things about us for once, no?


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