Dancing to a new tune in Latin America

Standing unified with his amigo Hugo Chavez, President Obama appears ready to engage in a spirited defense of another leftist head of state, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was tossed out of power and out of the country over the weekend.

While it took days for Obama to pass judgment on events following Iran's presidential election, he swiftly expressed "deepest concern" over Zelaya's ouster at the hand of the Honduran government.  A few hours after the ouster, Obama called on leaders in Tegucigalpa to "respect democratic norms," which would seem to be a call to restore Zelaya to power.

There is one small problem.  Zelaya's removal from office was precipitated by his own illegal actions and attempts to undermine his nation's fragile democracy.  Granted, any time a Latin American army takes a president into custody we hearken back to simpler times when generals hand picked presidents and if they got out of line, they lost their jobs, if not their lives.  This situation is far more complex.  And while Zelaya's ouster is an extreme reaction, the president's own moves are far more injurious to real democracy than those that the military, the Honduran attorney general, and supreme court took in trying to enforce the law.

The Obama administration cannot hold itself back from jumping into the fray, with Secretary of State Clinton parroting Chavez, Daniel Ortega and the Castro regime in demanding that their ally be restored to power.  We are truly judged by the company we keep.

Imagine that an American president (let's say George Bush, just so Democrats can intellectually participate in this exercise), called for a change in the law to allow him to run for a third term, claiming he must be granted this extraordinary power for the good of the nation. As about ten percent of Americans remember from civics class and the rest have to trust me on this, such a move would require a specific and very laborious process to amend the Constitution. 

Silly, eh?  But what if President Bush ignored the Constitution and simply issued an executive order to have a referendum, say in late 2001, when his popularity was at a terrorist-inspired, high?  Instead of introducing a resolution in Congress and going through the process of ratification by the states, he tried to rush a vote through at the height of his approval ratings. 

Democrats, along with Constitutional scholars and the media would rightly call foul.  Interest groups and watchdogs would rush to the courts to seek redress of this abuse of power.  The courts (you wouldn't even need to go to the Ninth Circuit) would appropriately rule that the president had far exceeded his authority and enjoin any such referendum. 

Not to be denied, the power-hungry Bush then orchestrates thousands of evangelical Christian Republicans to storm county clerk's offices across the country and take referendum ballots so they can hold the election themselves. 

Congress expresses outrage, and his own party calls him unfit for office.  But Bush continues to demagogue the issue and incites his followers to break the law.  This is essentially what Zelaya has done in Honduras.

Would it be an undermining of democracy to have this president removed from office?  More appropriately, would it not be an undermining of democracy to allow this president to get away with this?  Would removing Bush from office under this scenario be a coup or would it be the enforcement of the law? 

Last fall, when wiretaps indicated that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was in the process of selling a Senate seat and shaking down campaign donors, the FBI stepped in and arrested him right away to prevent him from committing these crimes, (which still didn't save us from Roland Burris.) 

In Honduras, the Supreme Court declared Zelaya's moves illegal and ordered the military, in a law enforcement capacity, to prevent the referendum.  The legislature has followed the law by naming an interim president and declared that this fall's scheduled presidential election will go forward as planned.  And the courts have declared the military's actions legal.

The facts of this situation point to a president who abused his power, sought to circumvent the nation's constitution, ignored the ruling of the courts and incited lawlessness.  The country's fledgling democratic institutions provided checks and balances to the president's power and stood up for the rule of law.  In a region with a long history of left and right coups and iron-fisted rule, the United States should applaud the functionality of Honduras's government.

Sadly, the knee-jerk reaction in Washington has been to follow the lead of Chavez, Castro and Ortega, who will now, apparently call the tune in our Latin American policy.