Weekly Commentary — The Coup in Honduras and the Left
I understand only too well the perversity of those who are always on the outside. Alienated from a system of power that they see as fundamentally oppressive, skeptical of a flow of information that seems largely to serve the imperatives of that system, it is only too natural for them to reflexively doubt the true along with the false and to reflexively oppose the good along with the bad.
Understandable as this pathology may be, it is something that must be overcome if one is to be serious about making change in a complex, stable society like the United States.
A vocal segment of the left has jumped to the conclusion that the United States backs the military coup in Honduras, perhaps the most striking example being an op-ed in the Guardian by Mark Weisbrot. With key facts outdated almost by the time it hit the Web, the title was dramatically changed from “Does the US back the Honduran coup?” to an acknowledgment that in fact the United States was on the right side here.
With some notable exceptions, there was little mention by the left of what a remarkable development this was. During the Cold War, of course, we never saw a right-wing military coup we didn’t like. More recently, the United States supported and was likely involved in the 2002 coup in Venezuela and largely organized the 2004 coup in Haiti.
In the 1990s, the United States was at least nominally opposed to the coup in Haiti, although it was very slow to take serious measures and it made restoration of Aristide conditional on his agreement to a series of humiliating conditions. The U.S. did immediately and strongly oppose Fujimori’s 1992 autogolpe in Peru and Serrano’s copycat autogolpe in Guatemala in 1993.
The Honduras coup is quite different, however. The United States has always had a strained relationship with the most militaristic elements in Haiti, which have felt free to use anti-American rhetoric when it suited them. A militaristic right-wing president’s coup against himself, likewise, is likely to lead to his being too independent and less controllable – legions of State Department bureaucrats have occupied themselves with reining in dictators we support who have proved themselves unreliable.
The Honduran military, on the other hand, is well-organized and disciplined, with very close institutional ties to the U.S. military. They removed from power a semi-Chavista president who was embarked on an attempt to alter the constitution in a way that was, at least according to the Honduran Supreme Court, itself illegal. Any past U.S. administration would likely equivocate, explain that there were issues in the conduct of both sides, and suggest mutual concessions. This time, after a day or two to figure out what it was doing, the administration unequivocally stated that Zelaya was president and should be returned to power. It’s true that Zelaya has said he now won’t try to change the constitution, but we don’t know whether that is due to U.S. pressure or not.
Furthermore, the U.S. military immediately ceased contact with the Honduran military and the administration is studying whether to call this a military coup, which would require cessation of most aid to Honduras.
Obama has been criticized for not taking the lead and not issuing ultimata to the coup government. I believe that this is in part a deliberate decision to defer to the OAS and Latin American governments and to suggest that we no longer want to be the overbearing policeman barking orders to everyone. Of course, this is possible because Honduras doesn’t matter to any current conception of U.S. strategic interests, but it is a welcome change.
For the rest, the Obama administration clearly doesn’t want to jeopardize its ties with the Honduran military through any sort of precipitate action. Given the extreme polarization between the international community and the Honduran political elite on this issue, it’s an open question whether an isolating move like that would cause capitulation or would simply harden the stance of the coup plotters. In Obama’s position, I would be cautious too.
The unrelenting sameness of the war on terror, punctuated now and then by some controversy over torture or by assertions of independence by the Iraqi government, has led many on the left to believe that nothing has changed despite everything. On the contrary, I think there is a greater potential openness in the shaping of national security doctrine than there has been in over 20 years, but we will need an entirely different approach to realize those possibilities.