After more than eight months in office, Americans are beginning to realize that Barack Obama's rhetoric and promises of hope and change differ significantly from his actions. But if the difference between rhetoric and action has become clearer, the driving forces behind Obama's foreign policy remain opaque. The way his administration dealt with the crisis in Honduras sheds some light on these forces, and carries a special lesson for Israel.
In his inaugural address, Obama promised to "extend a hand" to those dictators "willing to unclench their fist". At the same time, he told "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" that they are "on the wrong side of history." His policy toward Honduras is exactly the opposite: extending a hand to a leader attempting to clench his fist and take over the country, while treating those who stand for democracy and constitutionalism as if they were on the wrong side of history.
In June, the Honduran Supreme Court issued an order to arrest President Manuel Zelaya, an order supported almost unanimously by parliament. Zelaya had attempted to hold an unconstitutional referendum that would have allowed him to run for a second term. The Honduran constitution states that any president who attempts to extend his term limit shall be removed from office immediately. This might sound excessive, but the long history of Latin-American strongmen (Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is a prime example) is something the framers of the Honduran constitution wanted to break with. The constitution further states that referenda must be approved by parliament. The military followed the Supreme Court order, removed Zelaya from office, and instated the next-in-line according to the constitution, chairman of congress Roberto Micheletti, as temporary president until the general elections scheduled for November.
Since then the Obama administration has pressured the interim government of Honduras to reinstate Zelaya, who had been allowed to leave the country. Secretary of State Clinton even met with him in Washington. She did not meet with interim president Micheletti, but she did warn him in a phone call of the consequences of not reinstating Zelaya.
Be careful what you wish forIndeed the consequences followed. Last week, the State Department announced that it was suspending the issuance of visas to Hondurans (Zelaya did not have problems entering the US,) and that $135 million in aid might be cut. So far Honduras, the second-poorest country in Central America, has stood firm. But Mary O'Grady of the Wall Street Journal reports that the administration's pressure on Honduras, overt as well as covert, "might work."
What made Obama abandon his pro-democracy rhetoric and support a Latin-American strongman? O'Grady and former US ambassador to Latin America Roger Noriega suggest it was his wish to avoid conflict with Hugo Chavez. As Noriega put it in an article in The American, "the clumsy response of the administration is rooted in its desire to run with the pack—in this case a pack led by Hugo Chavez." In other words, Obama's policy of engagement and his wish to avoid a crisis that would draw his attention from his domestic agenda led him to this course of action. Perhaps there was another reason too. Obama was elected on a wave of anti-Bush sentiment and has created himself as the unBush. A conflict with Chavez, who once called Bush the devil, would have undermined that image.
In the Middle East, Obama's policy of engaging dictators and his wish to avoid conflict with one of Bush's enemies, in this case Iranian President Ahmadinejad has led him to intervene in the internal affairs of another small country, Israel. The analogy, of course, is not perfect; Israel has much more influence in Washington than Honduras, and Ahmadinejad is a greater threat to American interests than Chavez.
Nonetheless, lessons can be drawn. Firstly, Obama's foreign policy has little regard for democracy or the interests of other nations. Israel should therefore be prepared to take an independent course and not expect Obama to look after Israeli interests. Secondly, for those Israelis on the Left who hope Obama will do their work for them and "save Israel from itself," be careful what you wish for.