The president’s reaction to the ongoing situation in Honduras can be attributed to little more than political opportunism and carefully crafted image-related strategy
By Robert Wallace
Matt Drudge ran with the headline: “Obama sides with Castro, Chavez,” and from that point on the playbook appeared to be set. Obama opposes the Honduran coup because he likes socialist strong men, and presumably he likes socialist strong men because he has dreams of being a socialist strong man of his own. Sensational, but spurious, connections.
There are two problems with this narrative. In the first place, it omits some relevant facts about the Honduran coup, and in the second place it takes the wrong measure of Obama.
The Coup in Honduras
The coup d’état took place on June 28, 2009 when the Honduran military broke down the door to Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, drove him to the airport in his pajamas, and flew him out of the country. According to the Honduran Constitution, speaker of the parliament Roberto Micheletti was next in the line of presidential succession, and he was sworn in as president by the national congress that day. The coup ended nearly 40 years of democratic rule in Honduras, but many government officials claim that the coup was in fact legal.
The reason behind the coup was that President Zelaya was attempting to grab more power. He had proposed a ballot referendum to modify the Honduran Constitution so that he could seek a second term in office. The Supreme Court, attorney general, legislators, and human-rights ombudsman all agreed that this was unconstitutional, but he ordered the Honduran military to distribute the ballots anyway in order to poll public opinion. The head of the army refused, and so Zelaya fired him and the ballots were apparently distributed after all.
June 28, 2009 was to be the day of the vote.
The problem with the argument in favor of the coup was that it was pre-emptive. Zelaya had not broken the law yet. He had attempted to do things that were ruled unconstitutional, but so has every president, and not just in Honduras. Clearly the Honduran army, supreme court, and legislators were suspicious that, if the poll came back strongly in favor of the change, then Zelaya would try to have the changes implemented after all. That fear seems justifiable, but it’s not adequate basis for a coup. You don’t get to overthrow an elected official because you think he may do something illegal in the future. [Good point. If that were the case, our Congress would have a revolving door. -- Jeff]
It gets worse, however. While the Honduran government claims that the kidnapping of Manuel Zelaya was an arrest, I can find no mention of what criminal statute was broken. Nor is there any indication that charges will be filed or that a trial will take place. What kind of an arrest is that?
Finally, the behavior of the armed forces since seizing control include both violent confrontations with protesters and a clamp down on free speech. At least one radio station was shut down, and transmission of two TV news channels has been halted.
The news that Chavez and Castro immediately supported Zelaya is also misleading. They did support him. But so did the presidents of practically every Central and South American nation including the most conservative (Mexico) and the largest (Brazil). In fact, the Organization of American States–including all 35 independent nations of the Americas and the independent nations of the Caribbean–also issued an ultimatum that Zelaya be placed back in power.
Furthermore, the support of Zelaya is not coming exclusively from the left. It is unanimous throughout the American continents.
Personally, I believe that Zelaya was a corrupt, leftist president and Honduras is almost certainly better off without him. But that doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to remove him by any means necessary. Conservatives should understand the importance of getting the right result using the right process.
As I wrote earlier at America’s Right:
The biggest lie of the Obama campaign was the lie that he believed in any principles at all. I saw his promises to the left and right, observed that his history was left, and figured he was a committed lefty going incognito with the help of an obedient press to win the general election. Apparently, Dan Savage and the gay community came to the same conclusion. But it turns out that Obama isn’t a covert ideologue — he’s a man without any true principles at all.
It’s satisfyingly sensationalist to link Obama to socialists, but it’s also spurious. Obama isn’t a genuine socialist, because to be a genuine socialist he’d have to have a consistent ideology.
This doesn’t mean his policies aren’t socialist. Although I’m reluctant to make such an inflammatory comparison, Obama is like Hitler in this particular regard. Hitler took over the National Socialist Party, but he never cared about political or economic theory at all. He wasn’t interested in the plight of the working class. He was interested in power. And socialism–with its emphasis on collectivism and state control of industry–is more amenable to the kind of power Hitler craved than classical liberalism.
Obama’s support for socialist policies is undoubtedly similar. It’s not about the policies themselves. Socialism is merely a vehicle for advancing government power.
Given this understanding of Obama, it is easy to see why he came out so quickly against Honduras and so slowly against Iran and North Korea.
Obama’s strength is his image, and his image is one of a non-partisan, populist, decisive leader. But leadership involves risk. Obama hedges that risk by making sweeping, stirring speeches and then leaving the details of policy making to others. He lets Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid do the work of writing his bills and shepherding them through the legislature. If they fail, it’s not Obama’s fault. If they succeed, then he’s responsible after all. Look, after all, at the way he took credit for operations in Iraq after he was among Democrats who worked hard to present every available obstacle to such a result.
Iran and North Korea are much, much too risky for Obama to take a direct leadership role. They are risky both in the broad sense of posing a threat to American security, but more importantly they are risky to Obama’s credibility. Ever since he disastrously claimed he’d meet foreign leaders “without precondition,” Obama’s foreign policy has been a vulnerable spot. He has invested a tremendous amount of image-crafting to protect this weakness. From the Cairo speech to the Iranian New Years’ greeting to the Blue Mosque speech to endless rhetoric about a new era in American diplomacy, he has a lot riding on how Iran and North Korea turn out. His hedge in those cases is multilateralism. As long as Obama has a hefty cadre of foreign leaders with him, he will always be able to do damage control to his credibility if something blows up — figuratively or literally. If he steps out alone, however, then he alone could take the blame if something goes wrong.
So, when the Iranian protests broke out, Obama waited days to ratchet his rhetoric up, just as when the AIG fiasco became public, he kept his silence for the first couple of days. He had to test the political winds and consult with his image experts before taking a position.
But Honduras is a different matter altogether. Obama has no vested political interest in the nation, and it is too small to present a serious security risk. In addition, there’s already overwhelming consensus in support of Zelaya. So there’s very little downside to making clear, decisive statements. On the other hand, the story was in the headlines and so Obama had a great opportunity to come out in front and look like a bold leader. In short: great upside.
That is the real reason for his strong comments about Honduras. He’s not coming to the aid of his ideological allies. He is merely engaging in political opportunism. He saw a great risk-and-reward proposition, and he took it.
Robert Wallace has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008