July 10, 2009
Quick, what’s the capital of Honduras? Probably fewer than 10 percent of Americans could answer that question prior to the recent news that Honduran President Mel Zelaya was sent packing to Costa Rica by the Honduran military. While it’s too early to say whether the so-called “coup” will stick, or whether Zelaya, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez a few years ago, can regain power, it isn’t too early to assess Barack Obama’s response. In fact, Obama’s reaction has been most illuminating, and may indeed be one of the defining moments of his presidency.
When the “mullah-cracy” that controls the government in Iran made a mockery of the rule of law with its sham election earlier in June, Obama was strangely silent. Days later, he finally paid lip service to the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people, although he was clearly following American public opinion rather than leading by personal commitment to the principle that the people of the world have certain inalienable rights that their governments cannot abrogate. The cop-out used by Obama essentially amounted to respecting other countries’ sovereignty and not wanting to “interfere” in their business.
By contrast, Obama’s response to events in Honduras was immediate and energetic. He condemned the expulsion of Zelaya from his office and his country, asserting that it was “not legal” and “a terrible precedent.” What happened to Obama’s alleged respect for sovereignty and unwillingness to “meddle?” The only constant element in Obama’s differing reactions to upheaval in Iran and Honduras is that in both cases our president refused to condemn the party that was trampling the rule of law. (Or, at least in Iran’s case, initially.)
Briefly, what happened in Honduras is that President Zelaya wanted to follow the example of his role model, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, by altering his country’s constitution to enable him to continue as ruler indefinitely. By Honduran law, Zelaya’s eligibility would expire next year, and only the Honduran congress can initiate the process of rewriting the country’s constitution. Zelaya usurped that prerogative by decreeing a referendum on changing the constitution. He then showed his “democratic” colors by threatening Hondurans with the withholding of their government-provided medical care if they wouldn’t sign petitions for a referendum. (Lesson: Government largess comes with strings attached—including in healthcare.)
The Honduran congress, attorney general, and supreme court in Tegucigalpa (that’s the capital) all declared Zelaya’s desired referendum illegal. When Zelaya sent a mob to grab referendum ballots from where the military had secured them (ballots that had been flown in from Venezuela’s Chavez, by the way) the supreme court ordered the military to expel Zelaya, which it did. This was not a typical Latin American military coup in which some egotistical general unilaterally decides that might makes right; rather, the military acted entirely in obedience to the rule of law in defense of the country’s constitution.
By condemning Zelaya’s removal from office, declaring him the rightful president, and threatening to inflict various punishments on Honduras if he isn’t reinstated, Team Obama has come down firmly against the Honduran people and the rule of law. Obama’s different responses to Iran and Honduras indicate a revival of the perverse foreign policy of Jimmy Carter: namely, never treat enemies harshly; instead, apologize and grovel to them, but never hesitate to chastise, castigate, and even undermine our friends and allies.
A cynic might say that Obama is reluctant to condemn an end-run around normal voting procedures, due to his close ties with ACORN. That may be going too far, but it is accurate to say that Obama’s willingness to take the side of an anti-democratic leftist resembles the way hard-left U.S. congressmen seemed friendlier to socialist/Marxist regimes than they did toward Ronald Reagan. I always attributed that phenomenon to their ideological affinity—the fact that American leftists craved similar desires for central planning.
Obama’s stance here also speaks volumes about his constitutional philosophy. In the past, he has spoken of his frustration with our constitution’s historical restrictions on government power. He seems—at least in this case—to believe that a president’s power should have priority over the rule of law as embodied in a country’s constitution. This means he has sided with an ambitious leftist president who wants to subvert his country’s constitution and prolong his rule. That isn’t a reassuring prospect.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.