The current standoff in Honduras, in which the coup government headed by Roberto Micheletti is refusing to allow the return of elected president Manuel Zelaya, is raising questions about who is in charge of U.S. foreign policy for the hemisphere.
Divisions have been noticeable from early on in this administration, for example at the summit of the Americas in Trinidad last April. Obama went to the summit with the idea of presenting a new face to the rest of the hemisphere, and was immediately undermined by his adviser and Director for the Summit, Jeffrey Davidow. Fortunately, Obama ignored his advisors and proceeded along a diplomatic path.
When the coup occurred on June 28, the first statement that came out of the White House was a major blunder. Although the U.S. and international press gave Obama a pass, the diplomatic community could hardly help noticing that the White House issued the only official statement in the world that didn't have a bad word to say about the coup when it happened.
This position shifted as events moved forward, and Obama himself even went so far as to say, "We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras." But then his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seemed to contradict him. Twice she was asked by the press whether restoring the democratic order in Honduras meant restoring the elected president; and twice she declined to answer.
There appear to be others in the Administration who would be content to let the coup government stall out the remaining months of Zelaya's term.
President Obama needs to lay down the law and make it clear that this coup will not stand. He could start by firing the advisor who wrote that initial statement in response to the coup. It's not like they were taken by surprise: everyone saw this coming, and the Obama administration was talking to the Honduran military right up to the day before the coup.
Of course, if Obama really wanted to get rid of the coup government he could freeze the bank accounts of those who seized power, and their supporters in the Honduran oligarchy. This was recommended on Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Such a move would most likely do the job; these people may have a cause but they are probably more dedicated to their life savings. It would also have the advantage of not hurting poor people in Honduras.
If Obama has qualms about acting unilaterally, he could easily get approval for such sanctions in the Organization of American States, which condemned the coup and called for the "immediate and unconditional" return of Zelaya. (The OAS doesn't have the authority to require binding sanctions on its members, but it could approve sanctions for those members who want to implement them).
It should not be surprising that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have some daylight between them on foreign policy: their differences over the Iraq war are one of the main reasons why Obama rather than Clinton is president today. But there appears to be some old-fashioned influence peddling involved as well: it turns out that two of the Honduran coup government's top advisors have close ties to the Secretary of State. One is Lanny Davis, an influential lobbyist who was a personal lawyer for President Bill Clinton and also campaigned for Hillary. G. Gordon Liddy, the man who organized the infamous Watergate break-in in 1972, once said of his friend Lanny Davis that "he can defend the indefensible." He is doing that quite well lately, testifying for the coup government at a Congressional hearing last week, and spinning the media on their behalf.
The other hired gun for the coup government that has deep Clinton ties is Bennett Ratcliff. "Every proposal that Micheletti's group presented was written or approved by [Ratcliff]," a witness told the New York Times on Sunday. Who is Bennett Ratcliff? He was a senior executive for Bob Squier, known as the father of the modern political campaign. At his funeral in 2000, which was attended by some of the most powerful Democrats in the country, Squier was eulogized by then President Bill Clinton. Speaking on behalf of himself and Vice President Al Gore, also at the funeral, Clinton said, "But for him [Squier], we might not have been here today." And not only them: in 1992, Squier's firm represented about a third of the Senate's Democrats.
It's all part of the "permanent government" that Obama will have to confront if he really wants to change U.S. foreign policy. These people are pitting him not only against the region but the entire world, which has refused to recognize the coup government in Honduras. He is going to have to be tough and make a clean break with the past.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that President Obama has remained silent in the face of repression by the coup government. They have shot and killed demonstrators, closed down radio and TV stations, and arrested journalists. This week a trade union leader and a political activist were murdered. Violence and the control of information are their main weapons of the dictatorship. They will use them much more freely if President Obama maintains his silence. This is not Iran, where denunciations from the United States serve to discredit the opposition. This is a government that is highly dependent upon the United States for aid, commerce, and moral support -- and that the whole world has condemned.
The cynics will say it doesn't matter, that even if Zelaya returns to Honduras with the coup government still holding power, and the military responds with murder and mayhem, Washington can avoid responsibility. But given the long-standing and close ties between the U.S. and Honduran military; Hillary Clinton's relationship with their advocates; the ugly history of the United States in Central America and its long support for death squads and anti-democratic forces there; and the mixed signals that have come from the Obama administration since the coup, Washington will be blamed for the mess and potential bloodshed that could result.
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on July 16, 2009.
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