By Abraham F. Lowenthal
4:07 PM PDT, October 22, 2009
Washington analyst predicted that Honduras would pose a defining
challenge to President Obama's Latin America policy, but perhaps that
it has is not so surprising.
After all, something similar happened in 1963, when the administration of John F. Kennedy abandoned its announced policy of withholding diplomatic recognition from regimes that took power by force, convinced by the military coup in Honduras that the United States could not effectively require electoral democracy.
In the 1980s too, Honduras became the principal base for efforts funded and directed by the U.S. to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and to thwart the guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador. Clandestine and ultimately illegal U.S. assistance to the Contra force of anti-Sandinista insurgents became the main issue in Washington's partisan debates in the 1980s about how to relate to Latin America.
A Democratic-controlled Congress made every effort to tie the hands of the Reagan administration, which in turn was internally divided between political appointees with a transformational ideology and career officials who preferred to find multilateral and indirect ways of containing the Sandinista movement.
What brings Honduras, and Central America more generally, back again and again to center stage in Washington debates on Latin America is not the strategic, security or economic importance of the region to the United States. On the contrary, it is precisely the minimal tangible significance of Central America to the United States in economic, political and military terms that allows U.S. policymakers of conflicting tendencies to indulge in grandstanding in framing policies toward that nearby and vulnerable region.
In today's circumstances, as in the 1980s, both liberal and conservative interventionists in Washington press their viewpoint with little detailed knowledge, understanding of or apparent interest in the nuances of Honduran politics. Liberal activists inside and outside the Obama administration jumped at the opportunity to align the U.S. government against the forcible overthrow and deportation of President Manuel Zelaya. Many did so without knowing or caring much about Zelaya's erratic qualities, his interest in trying to prolong his term despite the Honduran constitutional ban on reelection or the considerable sentiment against him in the Honduran legislative and judicial branches.
Faced with the recalcitrant resistance of the de facto Honduran authorities to any negotiated outcome that explicitly or even tacitly calls into question the legitimacy of the overthrow, many liberal activists have been calling for more concerted sanctions and further interventionism by Washington, as much or more to reverse the legacy of decades of past practice in other countries of the Americas as out of real confidence that Honduras itself will be better off if Zelaya is reinstated.
On the other hand, a number of Republican stalwarts, led in the Senate by Jim DeMint of South Carolina and ardently supported by columnists and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, have responded to events in Honduras with an equally fervent but opposite inclination. They have attacked the Obama administration's stance as an amateurish effort to curry favor in Latin America, playing into the hands of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his camp followers. They do not appear to care about the fact that forcibly deporting the president without charge or process was unconstitutional in Honduras. Nor are they sensitive to the broad Latin American sentiment that such a brazen action must be resisted lest the days of frequent military intervention in Latin America be permitted to return. DeMint has prevented the Senate from confirming the appointment of the administration's Latin America policy team, a truly self-defeating approach.
The contradictory pressures of liberal and conservative activists in Washington, aligned with and egging on their Honduran clients, have made it much more difficult than it should have been to resolve the Honduran impasse. The outlines of a solution have been clear for weeks: the brief return of Zelaya to office; the establishment of a transitional government to hold elections; the holding of the scheduled elections in November without Zelaya's participation; the dropping of charges against both Zelaya and those who removed him from office; and agreed-to monitoring of the scheduled elections.
Such a compromise solution might well soon be announced, but even if that happens, it has been delayed for many costly weeks -- at the expense of Honduras and of many Hondurans -- because of the interplay of obstinate Honduran political factions and political skirmishes in Washington that have little if anything to do with Honduras.
It is high time to do better.
Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations at USC and president emeritus of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.