Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Victory for Democracy

Let us give credit where credit is due. The Obama administration eventually got things right on Honduras.

When the military removed President Manuel Zelaya in June and sent him into exile, the U.S. government echoed countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile in calling the ouster a coup and demanding Zelaya's reinstatement. The fact is that one can argue over whether what the military did was actually a coup, but the more pertinent question was whether or not it was illegal.

The crucial fact in the matter was that the military was not acting on its own but at the behest of the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court. The soldiers were merely following orders issued by two branches of the civilian government. And were those orders legal? According to an analysis by the U.S.'s Directorate of Legal Research of the Law Library of Congress, which was issued way back in August, the order to remove Zelaya from office was legal under the Honduran constitution. What was not legal, however, was exiling the president. That is specifically prohibited by the constitution.

Zelaya was nearing the end of his term of office. He was trying to stay in office by changing the constitution with an illegal referendum. The Supreme Court and the Congress put an end to that. End of story.

In the end, the Obama administration backtracked by helping to broker an agreement between Zelaya and the Honduran government and, in the process, switching its support away from the would-be usurper Zelaya and to the legitimate Honduran government. The result is that this past Sunday an election was held. It was the same election that was always going to be held on that date. Things in Honduras are now exactly where they would have been if the constitution had been followed all along. Nearly 400 foreign observers were in the country for the election and the broad international community has endorsed them. Thanks to the U.S. government coming to its senses, an actual coup was avoided.

The Honduran episode illustrates the problem with politics generally. Many people who are politically engaged tend to back the politicians or parties that reflect their own ideology, regardless of what the law is. Manuel Zelaya is a fellow traveler of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his growing axis of like-minded Latin American leaders. People and governments who supported Zelaya in the controversy were backing him because of what he stood for, or stood against, regardless of constitutional law. If Zelaya had had the law on his side, then Obama would have been correct when he reflexively backed Zelaya on seeing him escorted out of the country by the military. But Zelaya didn't have a legal leg to stand on, and the State Department finally got on the right side of things.

This episode, along with the president's long, hard deliberations on Afghanistan, have shown what happens when an idealistic, well-intentioned new president comes into office. When he has to confront reality himself, he often winds up in the same exact place as the people he used to criticize.