Thirty years ago the Carter administration made a number of foreign policy blunders that cost the United States dearly. In 1979 alone, four nations fell into the hands of our enemies: Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Is the Obama administration about to make a similar mistake today in Honduras?
All four 1979 defeats eventually took an enormous toll of innocent victims. For the next decade, while working to reverse Carter's ineptitude, the United States paid a high price in lives, treasure and prestige. In Iran, Afghanistan, and to a lesser degree Nicaragua, the United States is still paying a price.
In Iran, for example, the ayatollahs who replaced the Shah continue to kill political enemies, rig elections, support terrorism abroad, and to build an atomic bomb. In each case except Afghanistan, which fell to a Soviet invasion that Jimmy Carter said had surprised him, the United States stood by or even contributed as an authoritarian regime fell, from within, to a totalitarian.
Carter's policy had the best of intentions: to encourage liberalization and democracy in autocratic countries. But, as the late Jeane Kirkpatrick explained in her classic 1979 essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Carter overlooked the fact that we should not help destabilize a government that is facing subversion by an anti-American group or movement.
The Carter-era tragedies could have been avoided if the U.S. government had not been so naive about the intentions of others. Are we about to make the same mistake in Honduras? As Americans, we must hope that the Obama administration does not want its foreign policy to be compared with Carter's and is therefore modifying its earlier stance.
With the best of intentions, the Obama administration put enormous pressure on the de facto Honduran government headed by the former head of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti. The United States insisted on restoring to power the former strongman, Manuel Zelaya because, it said, Zelaya was elected democratically, removed illegally by the military, and thus Micheletti's government was illegitimate. What the United States said was inaccurate and the resulting policy was naive.
Zelaya was elected democratically, but like so many Latin strongmen, once in power he ruled undemocratically. In his elected autocracy, Zelaya joined a group of famous Latin American presidents: Juan Peron (Argentina), Alberto Fujimori (Peru), Jean Bertrand Aristide (Haiti), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), among others.
Moreover, following Kirkpatrick's prediction, Zelaya had taken Honduras into an anti-American alliance, the so-called Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, or ALBA, created by Castro and Chavez. ALBA's purpose is to oppose U.S. "hegemony" in this hemisphere by creating a cartel of undemocratic "21st Century Socialist" governments in the model of Castro's Cuba. In addition to Cuba and Venezuela, ALBA includes only Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua, plus three energy-starved Caribbean island nations, which have been coerced into joining by Chavez's petroleum extortions ("You join, and I'll subsidize your energy; you don't and you pay world prices").
The United States misinterpreted the facts in Honduras. The Micheletti government is de facto, but it is also de jure. In a formal complaint dated June 26, two days before the military deported Zelaya, the Attorney General of Honduras charged that Zelaya had violated a number of clauses of the Honduran Constitution. Consequently, the Supreme Court issued an order for Zelaya's arrest on the same day.
Micheletti was next in the Constitutional line to the presidency and was ratified in office by an overwhelming vote of the Honduran Congress, a vote that in the U.S. Congress would have been approximately 421 to 12, including all but 3 members of Zelaya's own party. Therefore, the legal Government in Honduras today is Micheletti's, not Zelaya's.
A crime was committed in removing Zelaya: the Legal Advisor of the Honduran Army has acknowledged the illegality of the deportation, since the military was legally authorized only to carry out the Supreme Court's arrest order. The Army said it expelled Zelaya because it feared domestic violence if he was allowed to stay. This violation, however, pales in comparison with the 17 high crimes with which Zelaya has been officially charged. Zelaya should be allowed to return to Honduras and face the charges in a court of law.
The current crisis mediator, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, has basically offered Zelaya a free ride home: reinstatement to the presidency and full amnesty for political crimes. Perhaps the Honduran government should counter: amnesty for political but not for common crimes such as embezzlement of public funds or use of police and military forces for personal gain. If Zelaya is found innocent, he can serve out the remainder of his presidential term. If he believes he is innocent, he will accept that bargain.
Is the Obama administration prepared to accept the consequences of returning an undemocratic, corrupt, and anti-American, even if elected, strongman to power in Honduras? That would put the United States clearly in the same camp as Cuba's Castro brothers, Venezuela's Chavez, and other regional delinquents.
Just this week the U.S. Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, declared Chavez's Venezuela a major source of narcotics traffic to the United States. According to Honduran press reports, since Zelaya's departure illegal narcotics flights from Venezuela to Honduras have practically ended. It is no accident that Castro and Chavez are Zelaya's main international supporters.
"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Growing up, I didn't quite understand what that phrase meant. By 1979 it was clear: Terrible results can come from good intentions if we are blind to the consequences of our actions. It is not too late for President Obama to avoid imitating the Carter foreign policy.
Otto J. Reich was Ambassador to Venezuela, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, and held other senior appointments under three U.S. presidents.