Tuesday, June 30, 2009


If there is a no-brainer, when it comes to knowing what to think about events in small Central America countries, it is that military coups are bad. And elected governments are good.

So the forced exile of Honduran president Mel Zelaya was bad, right? Well, as my daughter says when she is asked to explain bold behavior, it's complicated.

Roberto Micheletti, who has been sworn in as Honduras's new president, says there was not a golpe, as a coup d'état is called in Spanish. And his assertion is defensible. The military was basically operating on instructions from the Honduran Supreme Court when it rousted Zelaya from his bed and put him on a flight to Costa Rica. Now there's some serious judicial activism for you.

Imagine if George Bush had decided that he wanted a third term as president and decided to hold a referendum calling a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution to get rid of that pesky 22nd Amendment. Now someone might challenge that action because the president cannot initiate constitutional convention on his own. (This is true in the Honduran constitution as well as the U.S. one. In Honduras, such a referendum has to be called by the congress.) Suppose that the Supreme Court ruled that the president was violating his authority by going ahead with the referendum anyway and that the attorney general agreed. Suppose that the people who would normally carry out the election refused because of the rulings from the Supreme Court and the attorney general. Suppose that Bush then led a group of his supporters to the warehouse where the referendum ballots were stored, had them break in and then distribute the ballots to voters. (In the Honduran case, the ballots just happened to be printed in Venezuela.) What would happen next?

In such a scenario in the U.S., presumably the Congress would impeach the president. In Honduras, the military put the president on a plane out of the country, the congress met in emergency session and designated the next in line of succession, according to the constitution, as the new president. Civilians are still in charge of the government. Presidential elections in November are still on schedule. This was not a golpe in the sense that the military seized control of the government from civilians, suspended the constitution and began ruling by decree. Arguably, the military intervened only as much as necessary so that the requirements of the constitution could be carried out.

In journalistic shorthand, however, U.S. and international radio and TV reports summarized the situation by saying Honduras had had a military coup. Since Zelaya is a political ally of Hugo Chavez (who printed the ballots for him), it is not surprising that Venezuela and Cuba condemned the military action and demanded that Zelaya be returned to power. But so did the president of Argentina and the head of the Organization of American States. And so did Barack Obama. If ever there was a moment for Obama to react to international events with his usual, initial, wishy-washy, on-one-hand/on-the-other-hand, neither-side-is-perfect approach, this was it. Instead, he followed the Chavez line and endorsed the fellow who was illegally trying to change the constitution to suit his own political ambitions.

Strangely, Obama's own secretary of state took a more balanced, realistic point of view, being careful to avoid the word "coup" because it would automatically trigger legal repercussions for Honduras. Among pundits, Mara Liasson, of National Public Radio, had the most interesting take on the administration's attitude. She suggested that the U.S. government was happy to have Zelaya out of power but didn't want to say so publicly for p.r. reasons. Lovely. An administration that says one thing and believes another.

It would be nice if Obama and crew got some clarity on the right and wrong of this situation and spoke and acted, accordingly. With regional support for Zelaya growing and Venezuela threatening its own military intervention, Obama's desire to look cool to the Latin American left might be just enough encouragement to tilt things in Zelaya's favor. And so far, Honduras's military seems to have had more respect for the rule of law than he has.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moral Support

I'm probably wrong, but I think I know the precise moment that George W. Bush won his re-election.

Of course, there wasn't really one precise moment that changed everything and determined the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. People voted they way they did because of a whole range of reasons and feelings. But there was one moment when I thought to myself, that's it, he's going to get re-elected.

It was during one of the presidential debates, and actually it was two moments or, more precisely, a series of moments. One was the creepy feeling I got when John Kerry and John Edwards answered every question they got, no matter the topic, by mentioning that Dick Cheney's daughter was a lesbian. But the moment when I really thought Bush had clinched it came when the two candidates were asked about their positions on abortion.

Now, I'm not saying that the issue of abortion determined the election. Most people don't vote exclusively based on their position on abortion or any other single issue. But I think the question revealed something about the two men. John Kerry gave a very long, convoluted answer, explaining how he was personally against abortion but that he didn't think it was right to inflict his moral positions on other people and so yadda yadda. After Kerry spent what seemed like hours trying to get himself on every side of the issue, Bush stepped up to the mic and said simply, "I'm against it." That was all.

You can make the argument that Kerry's answer was more thoughtful, more informed, more (dare I say it) nuanced. But I thought I could feel a collective frisson that said, how refreshing to hear a politician state a position so simply and directly, with no qualifiers or exceptions or weasel words to get him out of trouble later. I might be wrong, but I thought I could feel voters thinking, hey, I might not agree with this guy, but at least he says what he thinks and we know where he stands. Whatever he believes, he really believes it.

I thought I was detecting a similar moment during the 2008 presidential campaign, but I was wrong. In August, Russia invaded South Ossetia and Georgia, sending in troops and dropping bombs. Candidate John McCain immediately denounced the Russian action. Barack Obama made a statement calculated to be even-handed, saying more or less that both sides were part of the problem. It took him a few days to finally come out and say that, well, actually, the Russians were the problem and that, as McCain had said days earlier with fervor, we should stand with the Georgians. Obama's poll numbers did dip for a while, but ultimately the situation along the Russian border weighed little in voters' minds when November came around.

But we saw Obama's penchant for calculation and even-handedness in foreign affairs again immediately after the election in Iran. As Iranians took to the streets and European leaders immediately decried violence against them and spoke up for the possibility of democracy in Iran, Obama made the unconscionable comment to CNBC, "The difference in actual policies between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as advertised," amounting to a virtual tacit endorsement of the current regime. He completely missed the point that people in the street were dying for their chance to have tweedle dum instead of tweedle dee. In that moment, how the outcome of the election might affect Obama's grand negotiation strategy was really beside the point.

To his credit the president, as he did in August, finally came around after a few days later. He made a statement graced with his trademark eloquence in an interview taped on Friday with CBS's Harry Smith. "And the world is watching," he said. "And we stand behind those who are seeking justice in a peaceful way." Strangely, however, those particular words did not make it onto the evening news that night. The key parts of his statement were edited out for brevity. So much for trusting Katie Couric with your news.

Meanwhile, defenders of the president went on news programs all week to counter criticism from Republicans, saying that the president had really gotten it right. The most surreal moment was when they trotted out the name of Henry Kissinger to say that even Richard Nixon's old foreign policy guru, famed for his Machiavellian instincts, had opined that Obama had hit just the right tone. The defenders seemed to imply the strange notion that America's top spokesman should hold back because the U.S. brand had been morally tarnished over the years and that the demonstrators would lose credibility or authenticity if America voiced support for them. This is completely backwards. One develops a good moral brand for saying and doing the right thing, not the other way around. Always be suspicious when people want to talk more about strategy than about what's the right thing to do.

Anyway, the fact that so many people had to be asked the question about the president's hesitancy itself demonstrates the president was slow on the uptake. And it leaves us wondering what his real values are. Does he have passionate principles that spring immediately from his heart? Or does he have only carefully worked out positions that need to be polished and tested before being fed into the teleprompter? After eight years of George W. Bush, lots of people are quite happy to have a leader who does not "shoot from the hip." But that doesn't mean we shouldn't at least wonder about our leader's aim.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Community Organizer Foreign Policy

When so many commentators made a fuss over Barack Obama's statement, in answer to a primary debate question, that he would meet unconditionally with such leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I thought it was the usual game of gotcha.

Any administration will have contacts and discussions with any government, as is appropriate for the time and situation. It seemed like a silly thing to make an issue of. But Republicans (and the Clinton campaign) were determined to use the statement to paint Obama as hopelessly naïve and not ready for primetime. When Obama eventually took office, that old issue faded somewhat, as many were struck with how consistent his policies really were with the Bush Administration's. The tone might be different, many suggested, but the substance was basically the same. Indeed, even in the case of his signature foreign policy act to date, addressing "the Muslim world" in a speech in Cairo, many pointed out that George W. Bush had said many of the same things but that the difference was that Obama was a more credible and compelling messenger.

But now, in the aftermath of the Iranian election, we are seeing more clearly the true divergence between Bush and Obama foreign policy. In this area, it is not really a question of Republican versus Democrat or conservative versus liberal. In recent history, the two philosophical poles in American policy have been the realist approach and the idealistic or ideological approach. In a nutshell, the realists deal with the world as it is and are not about trying to change it. Their stock in trade is crisis management or, even better, crisis avoidance. Deep down they feel that all nations are really pretty similar and that various national interests can be managed with enough communication and good will. The idealist/ideologues, on the other hand, believe in right and wrong. They know that some governments are intent on the destruction of their designated enemies and, if they engage in diplomacy at all, it is to ease the way for the eventual fatal blow. They think that democracy is good and authoritarianism is bad.

Clearly, Obama is at heart a realist. So was Bill Clinton and, for that matter, as was the first President Bush. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (at least as long as the neo-conservatives held sway) fell more on the idealist/ideologue side. Of course, this oversimplifies things. Every administration will have elements of both realism and idealism in its foreign policy. But with his tepid, lawyerly response to events in Iran, Obama has shown himself to be a realist down to his core.

It is easy to see his thought processes, as the man became famous for orating struggles for words and then concludes that he does not want to "meddle" in an Iranian election. His thinking seems to go something like this. It's not right to criticize a country's nuclear ambitions because, after all, the U.S. itself has nuclear weapons and has even used them in wartime. How to criticize another country's elections after what happened in the U.S. in 2000? Indeed, how to say anything at all very critical of Iran after the CIA's involvement in a coup more than 50 years ago? Besides, Obama's game plan is to build influence with the Iranian regime by showing it the respect that Bush never did, hence the muted U.S. response to obvious election fraud and his use of the term "Supreme Leader" (which is a title of respect rather than an official one) for Ali Khamenei.

I suppose Obama is doing the smart thing not to offer encouragement to Iranian protestors. After all, it is easier to come up with a strategy for a situation that is well entrenched and well known. If Iran should become unstable with democratic fervour, then things get more complicated. There will be new personalities to get to know and viewpoints to understand. There might be violence. Besides, what's the big deal with the election anyway? Even if it had been fair, who's to say that Ahmadinejad might not have won anyway? And, coming from Chicago, our president wouldn't find a relentless political machine and a little ballot box stuffing that shocking anyway.

If democracy were to flower in Persia, then the argument would immediately become over who could take credit for it. Many were quick to credit Obama's Cairo speech for Hezbollah's electoral setback a few days later in Lebanon. Undoubtedly, the same will be said of Iran, Obama's stated desire not to "meddle," notwithstanding. The truth is that any democratic groundswell in Iran will be due to the will and courage of the Iranian people. But some will argue, and not without justification, that Iranians could not help but be influenced by the establishment of democracy in their next-door neighbor. That would be Iraq, a country that has electoral democracy thanks, to a large extent, to that idealist/ideologue George W. Bush.