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Obama's First Latin American Waterloo

Honduras: The Obama Administration’s First Latin American Waterloo

by COHA Director Larry Birns

- The making of a failed policy in a diplomatic process that proved to be painfully unprofessional
- Ineptitude and chaos on Hillary Clinton’s watch

The staging of the Honduran presidential election on November 29 was meant to represent a satisfactory resolution of the Honduran crisis in Washington’s thinking. But to short-sighted U.S. policymakers, the magnitude and prohibitive costs of their maladroit strategy are being left out of the equation. Meanwhile, what seems to be a solution for Washington actually lives on as a profound problem for much of the rest of the hemisphere, as well as for long-term ties with such major regional actors as Brazil, Argentina, and the Venezuelan-led ALBA nations. These latter nations, at least for now, refuse to accept the validity of what they see as a tainted strategy unfolding in Honduras. Their split with the U.S., when it comes to Washington’s apparent decision to recognize the integrity of the November 29 presidential ballot and the December 2 vote in the Honduran Congress to recognize an anti-Zelaya status quo, is definitive. Moreover, what could have been looked back upon as a stunning victory for U.S. diplomacy was, in a matter of days, transformed into a staggering defeat.

Once the Honduras crisis came onto its agenda, Washington irresponsibly threw away an extraordinary opportunity to rehabilitate its tattered reputation most recently formed under the Bush administration. The Obama administration was all too ready to turn its back on upholding principles that reject an extra-constitutional change of government for a policy charted by the absence of both a Plan A and a Plan B. Rather than adhering to a policy that had been adopted by the entire international community, almost without exception, the State Department repeatedly first affirmed and then backed away from a strategy in which chaos ruled the day. Easily, the most obvious casualty, in terms of a damaged reputation, was Secretary of State Clinton, who at every policy juncture affecting Honduras shepherded a self-caricaturing policy of too little and too late accompanied by gross illogic. She was perpetually behind the curve when it came to the day-to-day articulation of Washington’s mooncalf Honduran policy. Instead of crafting a stance that would prove harmonious with domestic and international goals, Washington’s failed Honduras policy became an embarrassment for its lack of grace and class.

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As established by the Honduras crisis, the faulty mathematics of the Obama administration’s regional policy are dramatically clear cut. Certainly, a prima facie case can be made that Clinton, as a surrogate for the Obama White House, rather than acting as a harbinger of hope and change when it came to Latin America, brought nothing of the kind. Rather than an improved U.S. hemispheric policy pointing at an innovative direction or noticeably advancing the U.S. national interest abroad, Clinton acted as if her post was in a third term of the Bush administration. Her management of the crisis added nothing to this administration’s credentials for constructive engagement or as a vigilant sentinel guarding a democratically-elected leader against the extra-constitutional plotting of the Honduran military and a historically corrupt bureaucracy. If anything, Clinton’s Central American policies bolstered regional suspicions regarding the true nature of Washington’s commitment to defending democratic governance throughout the developing world.

What has been so surprising, and at the same time so disappointing, in regard to Clinton’s Honduras policy, is that it seems to have lost so much valuable ground and gained so little in return. To begin, Clinton has merely prolonged this country’s maddening indifference to formulating an engaged and progressive U.S.-Latin American policy. Washington’s traditional club-footed attitude towards the region, stretching back at least to the Nixon and Reagan administrations, comes at a time when Washington was totally absorbed first by the Afghan, then the Iraq, and now once again the Afghan conflict, and seeks to repeat this sterile formula.

When an opportunity to drastically affirm Washington’s commitment to democracy was afforded by the illegal Honduran coup, Secretary Clinton balked, or better-said, began to repeat some of the egregious shortcomings of President Clinton’s policies towards Haiti and Cuba. In a sense, the Honduran crisis could have represented a home-run pitch to the Clinton team. By siding with deposed President Zelaya she would have placed the U.S. firmly on the side of the rest of the hemisphere, including the OAS and UNASUR, as well as the UN and the EU, in upholding the process of democracy-building and preservation in Honduras and elsewhere in the Americas.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the current U.S. policy toward Honduras was its implausibility. While Clinton as well as Thomas Shannon, the then leftover Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, rushed to call Senator DeMint to reassure him that Zelaya’s participation in a unity government – which the State Department itself had formulated – would not be required to get the U.S. to recognize it. They then convinced the South Carolina arch-conservative to lift his hold on several key State Department appointees, and in doing so, may have swapped Brazil for Honduras. Brazil has not tried to conceal its outrage over Washington’s sabotage of its own peace plan, and this episode is sure to bedevil future Washington-Brasilia relations. Ultimately, this was a deal of amateur inspiration; behind the thrust of this kind of U.S. policy, the potential for loss was so much greater than the prospect for gain. If Clinton’s strategy could be defended on humanitarian grounds, then surely the same argument could have been made in calling for a similar policy for Cuba and other left-leaning pariahs that historically have felt the lash of Washington’s Cold War wrath.

In response, the administration couldn’t be persuaded that precious time was being wasted as the Honduran economy slid into desperation. Meanwhile, Washington must have been cognizant that de facto leader Roberto Micheletti knew all along that he held no formidable cards in his hand to play, and if the U.S. had showed some backbone, he surely would have folded. To the contrary, he did all he could to brazenly brag that in his corner was Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli as well as Costa Rica’s arch-dissembler and legendary forest of softwood, rather than teak, President Oscar Arias. Of course, the list now includes the U.S. and its South American servitor, Perú’s President Alan García.

Admittedly, in talking about Honduras, one is not referring to a Central American superpower. However, President Obama and his regional policymakers must understand that there are still costs – potentially heavy ones – to Washington’s erratic current Honduran policy. Too many Americans and even more Latin Americans are passionately devoted to the region. If legitimacy is born from the smoothing of the path that extra-constitutional Honduran authorities are now walking, which Brazil has denounced, this actually may not be much of a deal. While the White House’s new management team emerged from the U.S. presidential election with long promises of a new enlightened vision for the region, now many of these advocates of the administration’s cause are troubled by what they see in Washington’s hardly reformed regional policy.

The disenchantment began several months ago when Washington articulated its new Cuban policy. This turned out to be as much a Mickey Mouse project in content as it was a brilliantly conceived and dramatically revised strategy. This early failure in presenting a progressive new hemispheric policy, rather than limited to revoking the Bush administration’s draconic add-ons, soon found itself keeping company with Washington’s extraordinarily inept plan to resolve the Honduran morass, by purportedly making its own policy consonant with that of the international community. But soon the State Department was not emphatically insisting that the illegal government in Tegucigalpa must respond to the demands of the global community. Instead of offering the very generous terms contained in the Tegucigalpa and San José accords (which already were patently unfair to Zelaya), and would have returned ousted-President Zelaya to live out the weeks of his presidency stripped of his powers under a regency rather than as a fully sovereign leader.

Secretary Clinton and her throne room advisors have chosen to pursue a unilateral trajectory, regardless of how multilateral they are in tone. She has managed to subvert her policy in order to woo a man of ill-intent like Senator DeMint, whose indifference to Latin America is otherwise all things Brobdingnagian, indicating that the elections that took place on November 29 would be recognized by the U.S. even if Zelaya was not made part of a unity government.

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This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns
Posted 04 Dec 2009
Word Count: 1400


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