When is a Non-Coup a Coup? Ask Obama--and Honduras
Much debate surrounds President Barack Obama's refusal to label the Egyptian coup a "coup." Doing so would have legal implications for U.S. aid to Egypt, which is one of the administration's few remaining points of leverage. The Egypt case contrasts sharply with another military intervention that the Obama administration was eager to label a "coup," though it was not: the 2009 transfer of power in Honduras.
In June 2009, then-President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office by the Honduran military in accord with the Honduran constitution after he attempted to rig a constitutional referendum. Democrats, including then-Senator (now Secretary of State) John Kerry and Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, charged that the radical, antisemitic Zelaya had been removed in a coup, and supported his efforts to return to power.
The Obama administration embraced Zelaya (literally), attempting to intervene and punishing Hondurans by suspending visa services. President Obama supported Zelaya volubly, declaring: "We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not," and also that "it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections."
And yet all of the evidence indicated that Zelaya's removal had been legal and proper. When the Law Library of Congress issued a finding that Zelaya's removal had been constitutional, Kerry tried to have that finding reversed. Kerry also tried to block a fact-finding mission to Honduras by then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC).
According to the principles that the Obama administration applied to Honduras, it should oppose Egypt's new regime, on the principle that if the Muslim Brotherhood were to be removed, it should be done through constitutional means. But Obama has not intervened, though he tried to discourage protests against President Mohamed Morsi, because he is afraid of being on the wrong side of popular opinion in Egypt.
In addition, while the Obama administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood government, seeing in it the potential for a reconciliation between Islamist doctrines and democracy, Manuel Zelaya's government in Honduras was more broadly embraced by Democrats and the left for his alliance with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and other left-wing anti-American strongmen in Latin America, including Cuba's Fidel Castro.
So while the Obama administration cut off aid from the legitimate government of Honduras, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the ousted Zelaya while Kerry accused the interim government of "undemocratic practices," there is no such rush to isolate or punish the new Egyptian regime. President Obama is content to issue hand-wringing statements; Kerry has already returned to his lavish yacht.
The truth is that Obama does not care about "the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders." He did not care when Zelaya attempted to stuff the ballot boxes; he did not care when the Iranian elections were stolen in 2009; and he does not care in Egypt today. Like many of his predecessors, Obama applies that principle selectively--and, worse, in a complete absence of any concrete foreign policy strategy.