Shadow Government

Unresolved in Honduras

News of a negotiated "resolution" to the crisis in Honduras is no doubt being met with rounds of diplomatic back-slapping across the hemisphere, but such celebrations would be a bit premature. In other words, we'll be lucky if this is the last we hear of Manuel Zelaya. [Full disclosure: I helped a Honduran business delegation travel to Washington in July 2009 to brief U.S. policymakers on the crisis there.]

Negotiations to end the crisis that began June 28 when the oligarch-turned-leftist populist was legally deposed have culminated with agreement on, primarily, the creation of a national reconciliation government; no amnesty for political crimes; international recognition of the November 29th presidential elections; renunciation of any effort to organize a constitutional assembly to rewrite the Constitution  (Zelaya's mimic of Hugo Chavez in contravention of Honduran law that led to his removal); and a call to the international community to lift economic sanctions against Honduras.

But on the most controversial point of the whole affair ­ whether to unconditionally reinstate Zelaya to office to serve out the rest of his term, as he has been demanding and the interim government has steadfastly refused ­ the negotiators punted.  Actually, they tossed that hot potato back to the National Congress, which must now vote on his return, in consultations with the Supreme Court.

These are the same institutions that Zelaya has been confronting and antagonizing for the past year.  The same National Congress that back in June voted nearly unanimously (including members of Zelaya's own party) in favor of a decree censuring Zelaya for "repeated violations against the Constitution and laws of the Republic."  And the same Supreme Court that ordered his arrest by the military for his illegal actions and disregard for their rulings.

So, even while we'll have to wait and see what happens, it would certainly seem unlikely that there would be such a profound change of heart in these two institutions to see fit to restore him to office, if only for a few months.

And then what?  If they maintain their opposition to Zelaya's return to office, will Zelaya respect their verdict?

The answer is a likely a resounding "no". Recklessness and provocation have defined Zelaya's tenure in office.  Egged on by Hugo Chavez, with the assistance of the Cuban security apparatus, Zelaya is not about to go gently into that good night should Congress and the Supreme Court uphold their opposition to his returning.  He has already demonstrated he has the capacity and the will to put his personal interests over the national well-being.  One shudders at the thought of the chaos he can still create.

This puts a special onus on the Obama administration. Obviously, what opened the door to the compromise was their dropping of their ill-advised ultimatum that Zelaya's return was unconditional and that the administration would not recognize the results of the November elections unless Zelaya was reinstated -- a position that put them on the same side of the issue as Chavez and Fidel Castro.

But now they are on much more solid ground putting the final verdict on Zelaya back in the hands of the Honduran people and their representatives in Congress. This means that once that verdict is rendered, they need to immediately provide full support for the elections, and, more importantly, prevent Zelaya from any attempts to bring the whole temple down around him.

Even if in the unlikely event the courts and Congress move to reinstate Zelaya, he will still need to be closely watched so that he causes no more damage to the country, and the Obama administration, as brokers of this deal (three senior officials were in Honduras this week), bear a special responsibility on this.

The Honduran crisis is not over, but the administration has at least moved away from its untenable early stance and is in a much better position to affect a positive outcome.

What happens after the Nov. 29 election is another story. The administration's initial aping of the Chavez line on Honduras will not be soon forgotten across the hemisphere. A situation where a small, pro-American country attempted to stop a Chavez wannabe from running roughshod over its democratic institutions and installing himself in perpetual power was not met with support from the United States, but outright opposition and retribution. In this way, the stark differences with Chavez in our vision for this hemisphere ­ statism and class conflict versus freedom and opportunity for all ­ were regrettably blurred.  The citizens of the Americas need a clear alternative to the snake oil that Chavez is selling and by muddying that distinction, let's hope we haven't done too much harm to our interests in our own neighborhood.

Shadow Government

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

File this away under "who will guard the guardians", subfile "who will fact-check the fact-checkers." Media Matters, the leftist advocacy group that "fact checks" the media for alleged pro-conservative, pro-Republican bias, complained about a recent Politico story.  They took special exception to a point I made. 

The Politico story was about all the ways that President Obama seems to be getting away with activity that would have sent critics (critics like Media Matters, for instance) around the bend if President Bush had tried it. In the Politico story, the reporter quoted me saying that critics would have howled if Karl Rove and other political/communicator types had been as prominently featured in the strategy review that led to the Iraq surge as David Axelrod and the other Obama communicators are featured in Obama's current (second) Afghanistan strategy review. I told the reporter I was worried that this would give the appearance that Obama was viewing Afghanistan narrowly through a partisan political lens and it would complicate an already delicate civil-military situation.

Up gotchas Media Matters to claim that Karl Rove really did participate in national security strategy reviews, citing a Washington Post story about the the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which included Rove, Karen Hughes, and other communicators, as well as policy people such as Condoleeza Rice and Steve Hadley.

The problem with the Media Matters claim is that the WHIG was not involved in deciding national security strategy -- what to do in Iraq (or Afghanistan) to protect our national security interests.  Rather it was involved in deciding national security communications strategy -- i.e., how best to explain to Congress, to the American public, and to the world what and why the President had decided regarding the national security strategy. In other words, the policy team advised the president on what should be done and the communications/political team advised the President on how to persuade the American people that he had decided correctly.  

Both functions are appropriate and necessary, but under President Bush the policy came first and drove the communications/politics, rather than vice-versa. In short, Karl Rove did not sit in on the national security strategy meetings. If Media Matters has additional evidence, I would be interested in seeing it, but if all they can point to is the WHIG, then they need better internal fact checkers (and perhaps not trust everything they read or hear in the media).  

Now a more interesting critique would claim President Bush had the political-military balance wrong. Perhaps President Obama is recognizing that his decision on Afghanistan is inescapably a political one, and that the choice of the right national security strategy hinges crucially on an assessment of what America's domestic political system will support. In that case, it might make sense that Obama's political team has a seat at the table.

I think there is something to this line of reasoning, but at least in the Iraq case I don't think it would have altered the course of history much. I don't think having the political team at the table during the Iraq surge debate would have changed the outcome -- except, perhaps, to have hastened the surge decision slightly. According to Bob Woodward's account of the surge, some of those who opposed it did so out of concerns for its political doability (would Congress support the surge and would the American people stand for it?).  Perhaps having the political team to weigh in on that question would have settled the matter more quickly. Such hypotheticals are hard to pin down with certainty.

But some things seem pretty certain to me. If the Bush political team had been as prominently involved, the critics would have howled at the time. And because President Obama has involved his political team, he will have to answer the question: to what extent was this decision - whatever it turns out to be--  driven by political considerations, especially election and re-election considerations?