Wednesday, July 01, 2009


By now you've probably heard news of the military coup in Honduras that ousted President Zelaya and replaced him with his Constitutional successor, Roberto Michelletti. Despite Zelaya's history of trouble-making and provocative acts which directly led to his ouster, the coup has been condemned by every member of the Organization of American States, who today have given the new government an ultimatum; return Zelaya to power or face expulsion from the organization. The White House has walked a careful line, noting disapproval of the coup and expressing the desire that Zelaya be returned to power, and even going so far as to welcome Zelaya to D.C. for OAS talks (thought not going so far as to recall the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, as other nations have.) Zelaya, for his part, has vowed to return to Honduras and reclaim the Presidency, though he has been warned that he will be arrested upon his return.

Anyone who is at all familiar with the history of Latin America is troubled by the implications of this coup. Though so far no one has died as a result of the coup, Latin American militaries have a long history of being at best the referees of what they decide is good governance, and at worst forces of horrendous oppression. Weighing on the coup without considering historical context is folly. But Daniel Larison makes exactly that mistake when he says this:

We are appropriately wary of people who invoke a political crisis to justify extraordinary and extra-legal measures. This sort of rhetoric can be so easily abused for the sake of augmenting and consolidating the power of those in government that we should normally be skeptical of such claims. That said, isn’t it the case that the response of Honduran political and military institutions to presidential illegalities is exactly the one that most of the Western world has been openly desiring in Iran?

Isn’t one of the main problems in Iran that the military and interior ministry colluded with Ahmadinejad in his crime? Suppose they had grabbed him on June 12, the day of the election, and thus prevented him from carrying out his fraudulent power-grab. Would we take seriously for a moment anyone gravely intoning about the need for proper procedure and rejecting the result as an illegal action against the democratically-elected president? (Obviously not, because very few, even the most ardent Mousavi cheerleaders, genuinely think of Iran as having anything like a real democratic process.) One way to look at the Honduran situation is that the political and military institutions removed Zelaya early on rather than permitting him to continue to abuse his office. They did what their counterparts in Iran could not or would not do. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that they were able to take such action because Honduras is a constitutional democracy in many important respects that Iran simply isn’t.

And in an earlier post, Larison accused the Obama administration of "incredible incompetence" in handling the crisis, a reaction prompted by the White House merely noting their disapproval of the coup.

It's difficult to unpack Larison's statement above. After all, how on Earth is the coup evidence of the strength of Honduras' democracy? But I think it's important to understand where Larison is coming from. So as he has spent the last couple of weeks defending the Obama administration from critics who have said that the administration is not doing enough to indicate their support for the Iranian dissidents, so too will he attack those calling for more robust action in Honduras. Larison isn't an isolationist, but he is something of a non-interventionist. As am I, but I think Larison turns the facts on their head in an effort to link his position on Iran with his position on Honduras. There really is little by way of comparison between the coup in Honduras, and what supporters in the West wish for the dissidents in Iran to do. While it's true that in both nations you have some portion of the populace attempting to overturn the natural political order to some extent, it's important to remember that they are coming from different directions. In Honduras, the actors behind the coup are almost certainly conservatives opposed to Zelaya's populist policies and rhetoric (though it should be noted that apparently much of the populace opposed Zelaya's blatant-if incompetent-power grabbing schemes.) They are subverting an established political order that exists to represent the will of a majority of people and is at least designed to enforce the rule of law, however fitfully. In Iran, it is the political order, fashioned by the regime presently in power, that exists to subvert the will of the populace, and the rule of law is essentially non-existent. But it is in one crucial respect that the plotters of the coup and the regime in Iran are the same; they represent those with the power in their nation, and they are determined to subvert popular will and democracy to retain it. If supporters of the Iranian dissidents would cheer the regime caving on the election of Moussavi, it would be because democracy has been affected as a result. If critics of the Honduran coup plotters lament the ouster of Zelaya, it is because democracy has been subverted as a result. In other words, it does matter who the actors are, and it is not possible to make a coherent argument that it is the dissidents in Iran and the conspirators in Honduras who are on the same footing.

Now I'm not entirely sure why Larison stakes out this position. Perhaps his non-interventionist instincts have gotten the better of him. But it is also important to remember that Larison is a true conservative, and in that respect uncomfortable with non-gradual political change or political disorder. So then to him-I speculate-a victory by Moussavi in Iran is good, but only so far as it doesn't topple the established political order and result in violence in the streets. And so too is an elected President in Latin America good, so long as that President doesn't himself attempt to subvert the political order by enacting popular Leftist policies or over-reaching for power for himself.

Either way though I agree with him on much of his foreign policy positions, I think it's certainly the case that he's wrong this time. For the sake of establishing a precedent that rejects the long history of military intervention in Latin America, the government in Honduras must return Zelaya to power. Anything short of that should be met by harsh criticism from the White House (a move which, by the way would immensely boost our credibility in the region) and condemnation from supporters of democracy both here and abroad.

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