The only acceptable rationale for the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of turning cheeks to self-declared enemies and discountenancing proven friends has been as a public-relations offensive to put old adversaries off guard. Mr. Obama reasoned, probably correctly, that a black major-party nominee for president could raise the morale and lift the spirits of millions of African Americans. It isn’t unreasonable that he would think that an African-American president of partly Muslim ancestry could emancipate America from a great deal of onerous ill-will that has accumulated over many years in developing countries.
It is worth a try, but he is already hovering on the verge of overachievement in these efforts, though not in useful results. The apology for President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb on Japan (and for President Eisenhower’s approval of the overthrow of the deranged Iranian demagogue Mohammed Mossadegh), and the praise of socially conscientious European economic stagnation, were a challenge to the equanimity even of well-wishers.
But his coziness with Chávez, the Castros, the Kirchners, Ortega, and the rest of the deadbeat Latin American Left over the Honduran crisis is a mistake, especially as it occurs at the same time as his mealy-mouthed equivocations about the fraudulent Iranian elections, and his waffling on the 2003 West Bank settlement agreement with Israel (which I wrote about here last week). There is a point at which truckling to America’s enemies while undercutting her friends is a certain recipe for a failed foreign policy.
The former president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was elected and governed as a center-leftist, frequently antagonistic to the U.S. Zelaya’s family has been prominent in Honduras for nearly 200 years, since before the breakup of the Central American Confederation in 1839 (which should probably be resurrected — there is no reason to have seven little countries between Mexico and Colombia).
As his presidential term approached its end, Zelaya tried to alter the constitution to allow him to seek a second term. He even led a violent mob in an assault on a military installation to seize and distribute ballots printed in Venezuela for an illegal referendum. His whole effort to secure reelection was deemed unconstitutional by his own partisans in the congress and by the Honduran supreme court. In Honduras, as in the U.S. and other civilized countries, there are recognized procedures for changing the constitution and for dealing with unconstitutional behavior by high office holders, though there is not a discrete impeachment process. The Honduran congress and supreme court followed the constitutional path for removing Zelaya as far as it goes, after he was found guilty of unconstitutional offenses, including firing the military officers ordered by the congress and supreme court to restrain him from holding an illegal referendum. The highly respected cardinal-archbishop, Oscar Rodríguez, has urged Zelaya to desist from his farcical efforts to return and accused him of violating his inaugural oath and the “sacred law of God: not to lie, not to steal, and not to kill.”
Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, is following the constitutional path to a third term. Even the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez went through the motions in 2004, although he expelled inquisitive election observers from the Organization of American States (he was validated by the inevitable Jimmy Carter, who seems, in his ardent pursuit of the plaudits of the international Left, never to have met or even heard of a dictator he didn’t like). Mayor Bloomberg followed appropriate procedure in seeking a third term in New York City. The United States amended its constitution to prevent a third elected term for a president, after Franklin D. Roosevelt had died in his fourth consecutive term.
Impeachment procedures have been implemented against three U.S. presidents, but never carried through to removal from office. The Hondurans exactly followed their constitution in removing President Zelaya, with the possible exception of delivering him in pajamas to a neighboring country. This was a picaresque deference to the more bizarre traditions of Latin American presidential succession: Argentina’s President Ongania was sent packing from the official residence in 1970 and told to take a taxi and pay for it himself, and Cuba’s President Batista wished New Year’s Eve celebrants the best of luck for 1959 and fled the country directly from his own New Year’s party, leaving Cuba to 50 years of penurious “Guantanamera” singing with the Castros.
It would have been quite right for the U.S. to take its distance from the controversy and make clear it had no hand in it. The U.S. should now make clear that it will not tolerate an invasion of Honduras, which Chávez has threatened. But falling in line with the Bonapartist ambitions of the Latin American Left and assimilating the bloodless, constitutional removal of a president to the Ruritanian putsches and coups d’état that spangle Latin American history is irresponsible and not in the U.S. national interest.
If Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, or William J. Clinton had been removed as president by the Senate, presided over by the chief justice, the U.S. would not have appreciated the efforts of Venezuela, Nicaragua, or any other country to undo the process.
This is becoming a worrisome pattern with this administration. It is one thing to lament an unconventional change of president in a foreign country, as it is to decide that further concessions by Israel may be necessary to achieve a Palestinian agreement. It is something else to hold hands with America’s enemies to support unconstitutional conduct in another country, and to deny the existence of a comprehensive agreement with Israel that was made and has been honored for six years.
Chávez is a gangster. Argentinian president Cristina Kirchner, having been defeated by her own vice president in an effort to overtax Argentina’s farmers, stole the country’s pensions to “protect” them, and has just been routed in interim elections by her own voters. She has seen too many replays of Evita, and is not sufficiently eloquent to live by the slogan of Peru’s opposition leader for 55 years (eight of them in prison, eight in exile, and eleven in hiding), Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, who kept his position and won several elections the military voided. His slogan was “Give me a balcony!” — i.e., a place from which to sway the masses with demagogy.
Latin America is generally successfully trying to outgrow all this and join the politically advanced world. Many leaders who are either the heirs of extremists, or themselves reformed extremists — Lula da Silva (Brazil), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Alan García (Peru), Uribe, and even Felipe Calderón (Mexico) — are democrats and economic liberals. The detritus of the old Left — the Castros, Kirchners, Chávez, Ortega — are the tired, clichéd despots, the spiritual heirs to the juntas of officers’-club generals and admirals, their tunics so draped in non-combat medals they could barely put them on. Why is the United States slumming with such political lowlifes?
Instead of criticizing Truman and Eisenhower, two of America’s distinguished presidents, Mr. Obama, as he sets out in pursuit of complete disarmament in Moscow, should remember, and remind international audiences, that President Truman proposed international control of nuclear arms in 1946, when the U.S. was the only nuclear power, and that President Eisenhower effectively repeated the offer in 1953, as did President Reagan in the 1980s. Obama is presumably motivated in this by the largely ignored obligation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of the nuclear powers to try to eliminate nuclear weapons, as he tries to grapple with Iran and North Korea. This may be tactically sensible, but America’s historic arms-control policy should not be the subject of apologies.
President Obama claims to be raising the moral tone of the presidency and of U.S. foreign policy. This is admirable, but little of the above is the way to do it.