Guest Post by Caroline Esser: The Right Kind of Democracy Promotion

-

Tegucigalpa rally, NYT.jpg
Caroline Esser is a Research Intern at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
The unfolding political crisis in Hondruas reminds me of a statement that Imran Khan, world-class cricket player and current member of the Pakistani Parliament, gave at a recent New America Foundation event: the United States can best promote American ideals and positively influence other countries by supporting the democratic process rather than sponsoring one “chosen” leader (or American puppet), as the Bush administration did for years in supporting former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
It seems that Obama has surprised many by doing as Imran Khan advised in Honduras – he has demanded the reinstatement of President Manuel Zelaya in the name of democracy.
Daniel Larison, a blogger for the American Conservative, attempts to show a contradiction between the Obama administration’s criticism of the coup in Honduras and its support for the protesters in Iran.
Larison claims that in both cases the dissenters rightfully objected to the violation of their countries’ democratic institutions. He asks, “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?”
But what were previously legitimate and progressive efforts to challenge Zelaya’s referendum became regressive and anti-democratic when the opposition used military force to expel their democratically elected president from the country. Larison is correct that the people of Honduras had every right to protest their president’s violation of the constitution; however, U.S. support cannot and should not extend to military violence.
And there is another distinction between Hondruas and Iran. Honduras has a genuinely democratic system worth supporting, whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran’s democracy is largely a facade.
A review of past U.S. policy in Latin America demonstrates the wisdom of Obama’s policy. It cannot be forgotten how many times in our recent past we have supported this sort of military coup, covertly facilitating the replacement of a leftist Latin American president in the hopes of expanding our sphere of influence.
The most well known example of this type of thoughtless American foreign policy is the 1973 American-backed coup d’état that removed Salvador Allende from power in Chile and replaced him with General Augusto Pinochet, a military dictator who committed countless human rights violations and played a large role in Operation Condor – a brutal effort to eliminate socialist dissenters from the Southern Cone.
Though democratically elected, Allende was ousted because the United States feared his allegiance to the Marxist party. Of course there are less extreme and more recent examples of this sort of American meddling, including President Bush’s support of a Venezuelan coup to displace Chavez in 2002.
As Faith Smith has pointed out on this blog (here and here), choosing the side of democracy was no simple matter in the Honduran case because although Zelaya was democratically elected he has recently attempted to alter the Honduran constitution and reform the presidential term limit (never an indicator of a democratically inclined leader).
But Obama is correct to support the democratic process rather than any individual or political party.
On June 28th, Obama made the following statement:

I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Thus President Obama has simply and wisely stressed the unconditional importance of constitutional law and democratic elections.
Along with the Senate’s unanimous decision to pass the Kerry-Lugar Bill which declares “the consolidation of democracy, good governance, and rule of law” as the United States’ number one policy commitment Pakistan – President Obama’s response to the situation in Honduras indicates that the United States may be carving out a refreshingly modest, principled approach to democracy promotion.
— Caroline Esser

Comments

31 comments on “Guest Post by Caroline Esser: The Right Kind of Democracy Promotion

  1. JohnH says:

    Steve has said that he talks about what he wants to talk about. Of course. And that’s perfectly fair.
    Nonetheless what he talks about and doesn’t talk about is revealing, though it can be difficult to sort out the difference between not talking because he has a reason not to talk and not talking simply due to lack of interest in the subject. Granted, it’s easy to read something into someone’s silence.
    Unfortunately, there are a ton of topics that are absolutely off the table for public discussion in the American media, which TWN is a part of. We might remember that Hitler’s treatment of Jews in the 1930s was then off the table in the American press, because business groups feared it might damage commercial relations with Germany. It turned out that prominent German Jewish businessmen were among those who advocated such a position. This is a clear lesson that taking subjects off the table can have dire consequences.
    Personally, I think that a lot of what is not discussed here is because it would demonstrate “poor form” to talk about a topic that commonly known to be off the table for discussion in Washington–like Washington’s strategic goals and ambitions worldwide and in specific countries, like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and perhaps now, Latin America. Or America’s geopolitical goals related to hegemony and energy supply and distribution.
    I think we would all be better off if America’s ambitions were brought to the surface and widely debated. It might make the world a safer place and save American taxpayers beaucoup bucks.

    Reply

  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Steve seems to be interested primarily in the Middle East. So I really don’t find his lack of commentary about other areas of the globe all that disconcerting. However, I do, at times, find myself dissappointed in his lack of commentary and engagement as it applies to Israel and crucial political/diplomatic events involving Israel, because it is in the region of his apparent interest. In that respect, I think he IS very much like the MSM.

    Reply

  3. Paul Norheim says:

    “I think other readers deserve to be reminded that selection of
    what is discussed and not discussed is as significant as the
    bloggers’ content.”
    On a general level, I absolutely agree, John. But since you
    complained re Honduras, TWN has offered three posts about the
    events there. And there may be reasons, lacking the benefit of
    hindsight, to regard the events in Iran as possibly more
    important in a geopolitical context than the coup in Honduras
    or the unrest in China. (With the benefit of hindsight, the
    conclusions may change).
    Besides, I assume you`ve noticed that despite the weight Steve
    has given to voices of dissent in Iran, he has warned against
    verbal (or more muscular) support for the opposition from
    foreign states – in contrast to people like Bolton, or, closer to
    home, WigWag.

    Reply

  4. JohnH says:

    I find what Steve chooses to talk about very enlightening. Like the corporate media, there are certain topics that are sure to be hyped–the foibles and weaknesses of our foes–and certain topics where silence must reign–the foibles of our allies. In that regard, I find TWN to be pretty much in sync with the corporate media, although the turf wars between the realists and the neocons gets more play here than in the corporate media.
    To that extent, I think other readers deserve to be reminded that selection of what is discussed and not discussed is as significant as the bloggers’ content. The same is true of the corporate media.
    “News” gets published for a reason, and that reason frequently has little to do with how compelling a story may be.

    Reply

  5. ... says:

    paul, i don’t think anyone needs a reminder twn isn’t cnn and etc… i think it has to do with what i also view as the over the top coverage of iran, including numerous anon posts on the same topic.. it gets a bit tiring as it seems to play right into israel and the usa’s hands and one wonders if that really was the intent of it all as well… i think that is where some posters are correct to question what appears as an imbalance of coverage.. obviously not everyone agrees on this, especially the advocates for war in iran i might add…

    Reply

  6. Paul Norheim says:

    …,
    you may have had a point if not for the fact that Steve happens
    to be on vacation, and might have had to take a day off to make
    a valid contribution commenting the events in Xinjiang.
    On the other hand, you may assume, as a hypothesis, that he
    wouldn`t have accentuated these events – since he seems to
    put other issues higher up on the agenda than human rights,
    with regards to US-Chinese relations (i.e. the economy and
    North Korea). But that would be guesswork at this stage. He
    may, or may not, comment on this later.
    In any case, it surprises me how certain commenters always
    rush to criticize Steve for not commenting on an event just
    hours after it happened. Even if he was on the moon,
    undergoing heart surgery, I have no doubt some people would
    have complained about some planetary event he hasn`t yet
    commented on.
    Is it necessary to remind long time readers that TWN is not
    Reuters or CNN?

    Reply

  7. ... says:

    johnh – it does seem that steve favours coverage of a certain area more then another… today in xinjiang they are reporting 140 dead and over 800 injured in riots.. that is a significant world event as well.. i think you are correct to note any inconsistencies in the coverage…

    Reply

  8. JohnH says:

    We can put to rest the canard that Zelaya had little popular support. According to news reports, a huge crowd was at the airport to greet Zelaya. Presumably, they were risking their lives by defying the country’s military crackdown.
    But where are the multiple posts per day breathlessly reporting on the plight of the protesters? Oh, I forgot, TWN likes Iranian protesters defending democracy, but doesn’t like Honduran ones doing the same thing…

    Reply

  9. Paul Norheim says:

    Correction. First it was reported that Zelaya headed for El
    Salvador: now it appears that he has landed in Nicaragua.

    Reply

  10. Paul Norheim says:

    Looks like Zelaya couldn`t land at the airport in the capital of
    Honduras, and headed for El Salvador. Micheletti claims that
    Nicaraguan soldiers have mobilized near the border. Nicaragua
    denies the claims.

    Reply

  11. David says:

    This has to be factored into any attempt to understand what is going on in Honduras:
    “No nation has recognized the new government; President Barack Obama has united with conservative Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and leftist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in criticism.”
    This comes from the most recent article on today’s Yahoo News.

    Reply

  12. David says:

    Hell, this excerpt from today’s Yahoo article says it all:
    “Zelaya’s vow to return set up a showdown between supporters of the ousted president, who hail mostly from the country’s poor and middle class, and largely well-to-do backers of the coup that ousted him, who have held their own daily marches in support of Roberto Micheletti, the congressional president tapped by lawmakers to finish out the six months left in Zelaya’s term.”
    It’s the effing oligarchs versus commoners, especially the historically disenfranchised/exploited. Nothing new here, except that the presidents of tow South American countries, many other officials, and 300 journalists plan to accompany Zelaya. And Zelaya is urging his followers to stay strictly peaceful, no violence. If he can pull off a return this way, it will set an amazing precedent for a Latin American country we used to treat as a client state whose only reason for existence was to serve our interests. Judge Obama for whether or not he tries to impede this return. I’m guessing he won’t. The United States has already meddled way too much in the fate of Honduras, and never historically for the good that I am aware of. May John Negroponte and everything he has stood for fade into ignominy.

    Reply

  13. JohnH says:

    Discretion being the better part of valor, maybe Obama should simply shut up when he has no intention of abiding by the law. Case in point, Honduras. Why declare the action in Honduras illegal when he had no intention of abiding by US law? I mean, is this really about politics? If so, why is it that the sweat shop owners now ruling Honduras have so much political influence over Obama? You would think he would be smart enough to know that his support of coup by sweat shop owners will poison the well of American good will in Latin America, now that everyone can see that he doesn’t mean what his lofty words say.
    More context on Honduras–
    “Zelaya, a wealthy landowner, is not a natural fit for the club of left-leaning leaders who have taken power across Central and South America in recent years. But after he was installed in office, he began taking on the business community with its sweat-shop mentality.
    He increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent, declaring that it would “force the business oligarchy to pay what is fair”.”
    http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/html/20090703T210000-0500_154694_OBS_HONDURAS_DEFAULTS_TO_OLD_HABITS.asp

    Reply

  14. David says:

    POA,
    Politics can never be separated from the decisions of a POTUS. I argue that Obama’s baseline is respect for essential laws, especially Constitutional law, and that he, like every POTUS, is having to craft ways to make politics and the law intersect justly.
    My quarrels will be with the strategies he chooses, not with who he essentially is. Going back to LBJ, when he was in the Senate, he was an opponent of civil rights advances, his instincts being pro-power and pro-southern social perspectives. But he wound up shepherding through the first civil rights, legislation, and then as POTUS, the most sweeping civil rights legislation.
    The point here, for me, is the strange intersections, or lack of intersections, of politics and justice. I do know that if a POTUS cannot master the politics, which LBJ did, he or she cannot do anything to bring political realities any closer to principles of justice.
    But I stand by my statement that Obama’s baselines are the laws and a sense of what is just and what is unjust. His speeches tell you what he thinks. His actions will tell you what he can and cannot do. Same was true of LBJ, who actually didn’t think much of speeches, except for buying time, but was driven as majority leader by the belief that the function of the Senate was to pass laws.
    Pity he had a Texas geopolitical mindset and was so beholden financially to the Brown brothers. The sometimes hot, sometimes cold New Dealer was destroyed by the militaristic anti-communist. One of the saddest chapters in American political history.

    Reply

  15. David Noziglia says:

    In supporting the democratic process over the more “convenient” leader, Obama is also going against the policy of President Clinton.
    I was in the South Asia Bureau of the State Department when Musharaf staged his coup. The common wisdom then was that military dictator Musharaf was more “democratic” than the elected but completely corrupt Prime Minister he ousted.
    In these many cases, there are no simple formulas for a good policy. As has been shown time and again, elections are neither an indicator nor a generator of genuine democracy. The real mistake is confusing the two.

    Reply

  16. JohnH says:

    Another interesting tidbit from Meysan:
    “The Soto Cano air base is currently under the command of Colonel Richard A. Juergens. It seems that it was this same US military man who directed the kidnapping of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide when he held the position of Director of Special Operations of the Special Operations Command.”
    Same coup? Different country?
    This would explain the US media’s scant coverage of the coup and the protesters as well as the spin given the coverage that exists

    Reply

  17. JohnH says:

    Interesting piece from Thierry Meysan. It provides a good recent history, though much of the information is the same as the Kozloff piece. Except that Zelaya wanted to convert the Southern Command’s Soto Cano air base to commercial traffic. Soto Cano is the only airbase in Central America with a runway long enough to accommodate troop transport. It is also one of three major listening posts. The Pentagon was not happy.
    Unfortunately, the piece does not appear to be available in English:
    http://www.voltairenet.org/article160801.html
    http://www.voltairenet.org/article160859.html

    Reply

  18. JohnH says:

    These defenders of the coup must agree that the US military should have stepped in to oust Bush for his constant assault on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which they are sworn to defend! At least Zelaya had the common courtesy of trying to put the changes to a vote, something Bush never did.
    Actually, most of the coup defenders probably supported Bush’s assaults, because they are in sync with the special interests that benefited from Bush’s illegal behavior.

    Reply

  19. ... says:

    … not to be confused with …….
    first time in a long time a poster has opted to use a handle that i have had here for some time… i’m just pointing it out for others to note. last time it happened it was on the part of someone with malevolent intent..

    Reply

  20. ....... says:

    “choosing the side of democracy was no simple matter in the Honduran case because although Zelaya was democratically elected he has recently attempted to alter the Honduran constitution and reform the presidential term limit (never an indicator of a democratically inclined leader)”
    Under that reasoning, the various attempts in the US by the executive branch to be involved in altering ITS constitution would be seen as “undemocratic”.
    Would you consider the fact that in the US a person is allowed TWO consecutive terms “never an indicator of a democratically inclined leader”? How about in the UK?
    Let’s not play loose with the facts of how the constitution came into being, and especially about what Zelaya actually did, and what the response was.

    Reply

  21. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Actually, I think Obama really is a champion of the law”
    It is impossible for me to fathom how anyone could sincerely believe that, considering Obama’s inaction on a number of fronts, where indisputably prosecutable crimes have been committed. Obama has repeatedly and unabashedly, put politics above the law. That fact is undeniable.

    Reply

  22. erichwwk says:

    For Nikolas Kozloff’s take on how to evaluate and balance constitutional issues (whether from the perspective of Zelaya or the military, and another view on whos’s actions were unconstitutional) and what the alternative, and perhaps much more important, issues are:
    http://tiny.cc/KAASg

    Reply

  23. ... says:

    leaders change the constitution all the time… i thought that is what bush did? and he was elected for a 2nd term…. is it only now that some folks want to get concerned about some leader working to change the constitution? i am with johnh in noting inconsistencies in it all…

    Reply

  24. David says:

    Actually, I think Obama really is a champion of the law. But he is also very deliberate, very measured, and possibly more canny than we realize. I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, like some of the decisions he has made, most notably his delays regarding DADT. And I don’t know that some of his strategies are the best choices. However, it is precisely his instinct to bring the primacy of the law front and center, especially after the utter lawlessness of the last 8 years, that is driving him.
    As Clinton said on Elvis Costello’s show, if you listen closely to what presidents say when they are running for office, they mostly try their best to fulfill those promises.
    My question remains, Just how much power does a POTUS actually have against entrenched interests? The truth is that Bush was the perfect president for the actual entrenched interests with the most power and money in America, which means the most important people in America (except when voters actually exercise their even greater power in some way contrary to the wishes of the most powerful private interests). Thus Bush could get away with invading Iraq, and any number of other things, including outing a CIA agent, and push through a Republican Congress, with nowhere near enough pushback from Democrats, some of the stupidest tax legislation in American history. The most important people approved.
    Obama was a community organizer and is both very intelligent and very well educated. He understands these things. What remains to be seen is what he can actually carry out and what he will be forced to back down on. There are very real limits to his power, but he also has considerable power and influence if he plays the game right (and from my perspective holds to what Clinton said presidents actually strive to do).
    Regarding American and Israeli Jews, Nathan Jeffay has an interesting article in the current The Forward, “The Growing Gulf between U.S. and Israeli Jews on Obama.” http://www.forward.com/articles/108796/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=Email%20marketing%20software&utm_content=70937005&utm_campaign=July+10%2c+2009+_+ituhjy&utm_term=READ+MORE
    My personal thought is that if Israel continues on its current trajectory, everyone loses – there will be no winners, except for the usual winners in wars, the war profiteers. I’m with Naomi Klein, one of the brightest lights out there, at this point.

    Reply

  25. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Thus President Obama has simply and wisely stressed the unconditional importance of constitutional law…….”
    ROFLMAO!!!! Yeah right. Seen any indictments of these sick abominations that made the United States a “torture state”? What about Gonzales commiting INDISPUTABLE perjury? Rice’s perjury?
    Ignoring these KNOWN CRIMES shows a respect for the law?
    Horseshit.
    Yeah, he’s a real champion of the law, isn’t he?
    And the treaty we belong to where we agree to indict and prosecute torturers?
    And wheres his respect for the law when Israel can hijack vessels on the high seas, and illegally detain a former Congresswoman?
    And his FISA stance?
    Obama has no more respect for the “law” than the last criminals that squatted in the White House did.
    “But I see just now that Caroline Esser is an intern, so sorry about the snark”
    Well, maybe she needs a little snark. Its a hell of a sight easier to pull your head out of your ass when you’re young than it is after you’ve grown comfortable to having it in there. Not that I’m saying she’s got her head up her ass, but as a think tanker, she is sure surrounded by people who will gladly teach her the finer points of cranal self insertion. Her insinuation that Obama is a champion of the law certainly seems to indicate that she is practicing the technique.

    Reply

  26. Doubting says:

    Thanks. I hadn’t heard about Obama’s comment.
    Sorry to be testy about language. I’ve read too much Orwell perhaps. But when I hear 9/11/73 described as thoughtless, I am trying to imagine a world where an American pundit would call bin Laden’s attack on 9/11 “thoughtless.”
    Or perhaps “injudicious.” There’s something beautifully exculpatory about thoughtlessness.
    But I see just now that Caroline Esser is an intern, so sorry about the snark.

    Reply

  27. Nobcentral says:

    Obama made a point of mentioning that Uribe should
    not seek to change the Colombian constitution a
    second time at the conclusion of their recent
    meeting.
    Anyway, not really sure what your point is. US
    backing the 73 coup in Chile was reckless and
    insane from any perspective other than pure
    corporatism (the threat of ‘red spread’ was a
    useful argument to expand our corporate
    interests). Perhaps it wasn’t “thoughtless” in
    the sense that it was a well thought out means to
    put a more pro-US business regime into power,
    human costs be damned. But it was certainly
    thoughtless from an ethical point of view (not
    that ethics have ever mattered in foreign policy).

    Reply

  28. Doubting says:

    Obama had no choice but to oppose a coup. Not to do so would have ruined his entire image, which is key to his foreign policy. He was never going to risk his political capital on Honduras.
    But that does not mean support for Zelaya. On the contrary, you can tell the US will make sure the constitution is not changed. So the coup is perfect for the US.
    Funny about term limits… No one mentions Uribe or our very own Bloomberg.
    >> thoughtless American foreign policy is the 1973 American-backed coup d’état in Chile
    Thoughtless?
    For Americans into “Democracy Promotion,” naturally, Kissinger and Nixon were “thoughtless.” You know, those big oafs…. just not thinking things through.

    Reply

  29. David says:

    Always worthwhile to check in at TWN for some good quality thinking. This post and the comments are no exception.
    I suspect that this comment from Ben Dangl at Toward Freedom is very much to the point: “However, Zelaya has been criticizing and taking on the sweatshop and corporate media industry in his country, and increased the minimum wage by 60%. He said the increase, which angered the country’s elite but expanded his support among unions, would ‘force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.'” Oligarchs never, ever want to pay their fair share, and they have no qualms about using military force to maintain a status quo favorable to their narrow interests. Back in the day in the USA the force was applied via the Pinkertons.

    Reply

  30. Nobcentral says:

    Good post. I think it’s important, however, to be
    very clear that Zelaya had not yet attempted to
    alter the constitution via referendum. This was
    to be the first referendum which, if passed, would
    authorize a 2nd referendum that would change term
    limits. The whole idea that there was a pressing,
    possibly justifiable need to depose the sitting
    president is little more than propaganda from the
    current government.
    In fact, I would argue that Obama’s decision to
    support Zelaya was difficult not because Zelaya is
    a democracy usurping tyrant (or has aspirations to
    be one), but that Zelaya has been a constant thorn
    in the side of US interests in the region and is a
    close ally with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
    If history is any guide, it must have been very
    tempting for the Obama administration to resist
    the urge to flip an adversary to an ally while at
    the same time weakening the Chavez led opposition
    front.

    Reply

  31. JohnH says:

    I hope Caroline Esser’s assessment of Obama’s stance is correct. So far it has been just words, words, words, with no concrete action to back them up.
    Meanwhile tens of thousands are massing in protest for the allegedly ‘highly unpopular’ Zelaya. When American news media start giving this drama the same kind of attention they gave the Iran drama, I will know that the foreign policy mob has had an epiphany…
    http://www.chavezcode.com/2009/07/day-5-mass-protests-in-honduras-against.html

    Reply

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *