Wouldn’t it be ironic if the first military intervention of the Obama administration were to occur in, of all places, Honduras? Unlikely, I admit, but not impossible. Young Democratic presidents with scant foreign-policy experience usually feel a need to demonstrate their willingness to use force early on. Think of JFK and the Bay of Bigs. Or, more to the point, recall Clinton and Haiti. In 1994, Cinton sent in troops to restore president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after he had been ousted by a military coup.
Sound familiar? In Haiti our intervention didn’t work out so well. Aristide, although elected, turned out to be no democrat and not an enlightened despot either. The country continued to become poorer and more chaotic. He was ultimately ousted in another coup in 2004. This time, President Bush was wise enough to give Aristide a lift out of the country — not to force him back into power.
Let us hope Obama learns a lesson in all this about the dangers of American intervention in another nation’s internal affairs — something he is keenly aware of when it comes to Iran. But he seems much less reticent about interfering with Israel’s internal affairs or Honduras’s.
He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been loudly denouncing the illegality of the coup which toppled President Manuel Zelaya. The legality of what happened is, however, murky. The army claimed it was simply enforcing a Supreme Court warrant by arresting and exiling Zelaya. It would have been better if the president had been impeached or placed on trial so he could mount a legal defense, but the anti-Zelaya side makes good points about the illegality of the president’s own actions.
There was nothing legal about Zelaya’s attempts to stage a rigged referendum to allow him to continue in power in contravention of a Honduran Supreme Court decision. He was plainly maneuvering in the style of his patron, Hugo Chavez, to extend his power by forceful means, thereby keeping the shell of electoral democracy but hollowing out its core.
It is a complex situation and hard to make the case that the U.S. should employ its power or prestige to force Zelaya back into power. By all means the U.S. should act as an honest broker to help all sides reach an accommodation if possible and, even if not, to get the electoral process fully functional again. Obama, Clinton, et al. should certainly express American support for democracy — which means the rule of law, not simply regular balloting. Military coups are no longer the biggest threat to Latin democracy. Now it’s leftist demagogues who repress the opposition and accumulate power in their own hands after being elected. That is precisely the danger that many in Honduras saw descending on their own country.