Shadow Government

What to do about Honduras

"Our homeland is bleeding painfully," is how Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez put it recently at a religious event whose audience included Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

Indeed, Honduras is spiraling into an ungovernable and unstable situation due to the increased operations of international drug syndicates and their local gang proxies within its territory.

Last October, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Honduras, a nation of 7.6 million, now has the highest homicide rate in the world.

Honduras is a victim of what counter-narcotics experts refer to as the "balloon effect," where heavy pressures on traffickers in Colombia and Mexico have forced them to relocate to less dangerous environments such as Honduras, where they are flooding the country with hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits, bribing legislators, judges and police officials, and further debilitating already weak institutions.

What can the U.S. do about this situation? Well, the first thing that's important is emphasizing what we should not do -- and that is cut off all police and military aid, as a recent tendentious op-ed in the New York Times argued. The piece went on to make the preposterous claim that the Obama administration is responsible for the drug carnage in Honduras because it supported elections to end the 2009 presidential crisis that saw the ouster of proto-authoritarian Manuel Zelaya.

While it is true that the Honduras crisis does have its origins in the U.S., it's not quite the way the op-ed's author imagines. It is the U.S. insatiable demand for illicit narcotics that fuels the crisis there and throughout Central America. (U.S. officials estimate that fully 95 percent of the illegal drugs that go from South America to the United States pass through Central America.)

As such, we have an obligation to the Honduran people to help mitigate the violent fallout. But we also have to recognize the U.S.'s present fiscal situation and that major new assistance initiatives are unlikely to be contemplated. But there are important things we can do now within present budgets.

Because the narcos have so thoroughly penetrated the police forces, the military has had to be called in to try and stabilize the situation. We need to work with the Honduran government to allow the DEA to train and vet special law enforcement units as they have done in other countries. Without wholesale reform of front-line units, no progress in the drug war will be possible. Similarly, increased support for witness, judge and prosecutor protection programs to eradicate impunity is essential.

Second, the U.S. needs to implement an extradition treaty with Honduras as quickly as possible. Extradition to the U.S. is what kingpins fear the most, because they know they cannot buy their way out. It has proved extremely valuable in Colombia's war against the cartels and needs to be replicated here.

Yet, these immediate steps and any subsequent measures cannot succeed absent local leadership, which is something the U.S. cannot provide. Regrettably, President Lobo's tenure has not been marked by strong leadership on this front. In short, he is no President Uribe of Colombia. 

Honduras needs a leader who is willing to take on the drug cartels and those corrupted by them and move his country -- principally the political and economic elites -- to make the necessary sacrifices to reclaim their country's sovereignty from the drug lords and gangs. President Uribe challenged the wealthy to radically increase Colombia's security resources and they responded, because they saw him as a leader who could be trusted.

Of course, reducing U.S. demand for illegal drugs would begin to solve the problem, but that is not going to happen in the short-term, and the house is on fire today. Decriminalization is a pipe dream. Neither is walking away from the problem a serious option. Honduras's war on drugs is ours too, and it's time that both sides begin treating it as such.

[Full disclosure: In July 2009, I helped to advise a Honduran business delegation that came to Washington during their presidential crisis to defend Manuel Zelaya's removal from power.]

ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Veto of Syria resolution demonstrates Russian desperation and Chinese stagnation

How to explain the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government's continuing killing spree against its own people? What strategic interest or moral imperative dominates their thinking?

Officially, Russia and China claim to be preventing the international community from doing another Libya; they are insisting on patience and "balance." The U.S., UK, France, the rest of the Security Council and pretty much the rest of the world, including the Arab League, beg to differ. Those speaking out the most forcefully don't buy what they consider excuse making for a bloody dictator.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice finds no ethical stance that can justify it, calling the vetoes "disgusting" and "shameful" and warning that the blame for the future deaths of Syrian civilians is on Russia and China. Amb. Rice does not comment on what strategic interests the vetoing states might be pursuing, though we can certainly speculate.

For Russia, Syria's dictatorship is its last client left standing in the Middle East, both political and economic since Syria provides a warm seaport and buys Russian weaponry. To watch it fall means ceding the field largely to the U.S. and the EU, and losing revenue. The stakes are indeed high for Russia. For China, the best explanation is inertia; China defines its national interest -- apart from its freedom to engage in commerce wherever it can -- according to the principle of non-intervention. Its reaction to the Syria situation is like its reaction to every other such situation: everyone should mind his own business, we like things as they are. (That China seems to contradict itself when it comes to Filipino, Vietnamese, or Japanese territorial interests requires a little semantic gymnastics.)

But let's look at this matter from thirty thousand feet. This latest turn in the Syrian tragedy reminds one of Talleyrand's famous comment applied to Napoleon's judicial murder of a noble: "[I]t was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." That is, the stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU. When the West and the Arab League are on the same page, and most of the second and third ranking powers and beyond are with them, any state taking Bashar al-Assad's side is hard-pressed to stake a claim for world leadership. Syria's blatant violation of the norms of the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights is patently obvious, as was the late Muammar Qaddafi's. For Russia and China to fail to recognize that and join the rest of the world in condemning it and seeking an end to these violations is in some ways worse: We expect tyrants like al-Assad to do what he is doing, but since the democracy revolutions and the Arab Spring, we rightly expect a different reaction from members of the Security Council entrusted with the only international organizational authority to do something about it.

No one expects Russia to lightly watch an ally go down, or for China to acquiesce in what it considers the violation of the most important international relations principle. Neither country wants to see further precedents being set of the average citizen rising up to challenge the established power. But I'd use their own words against them, the words they used in announcing their veto regarding the need in the resolution for "balance." There was a certain logic to calls for "balance" during the Cold War no matter how clanging it sounded. Much of international relations was a zero-sum game. But the Cold War is over. The publics of the Middle East are all in various stages of uprising and rebellion against centuries of tyranny, and they are aided by technology and social media in a way that means they will not be deterred short of death. That is a fact. Therefore, to oppose them and call for "balance" or "restraint" is to side with those who would without compunction kill as many of their citizens as they have to in order to stay in power; we're talking genocide now as a matter of course and endless instability. The democracy genie is out of the bottle.

So now the logic of "balance" is moot; urging acceptance of the democracy-crushing status quo is a spent force. International prestige and legitimate claims to world leadership now rest on those who accept that history has indeed ended in this sense: People want the dignity of self-government and they have the technological means to perpetually bring once unshakeable dictators to the nightmare scenario. Would-be world leaders should choose the right side now. After all, both ethics and logic point the way clearly now. That's the real "reset" that is needed, and it is good to see the Obama administration's diplomats at the UN representing it.

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