Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dictators and demagogues can rest easy on President Obama’s watch. When thousands of Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran protesting a rigged election and were beaten and shot down by pro-regime thugs, the president bided his time before making a series of noncommittal statements. He seemed to hope it would all just go away. However, when a socialist demagogue was ejected unceremoniously from Honduras on Sunday by his own government for trying to establish a presidency for life, Mr. Obama instantly sprang to his defense.

What happened in Honduras was not a military coup. Honduras has a civilian president, Roberto Micheletti, a member of former President Manuel Zelaya’s own Liberal Party, who was elevated to the post after Mr. Zelaya was removed. The army did not seize power, but acted as the elected government’s instrument in ousting Mr. Zelaya, who was well on his way to subverting the Honduran constitution and erecting a dictatorship.

The crisis followed an intense week of political drama over a planned referendum seeking to convene an assembly to rewrite the 1982 constitution to allow Mr. Zelaya to serve in office beyond the mandated one-term limit, which would have ended in January 2010. The Honduran National Congress opposed the referendum, and the Supreme Court declared it illegal. The plan was denounced by majority and opposition political parties, the Catholic Church and the Honduran Human Rights Commission.

The military impounded the illegal ballots, and Mr. Zelaya fired military chief Gen. Romeo Vasquez for refusing to distribute them. This prompted resignations from Defense Minister Edmundo Orellana and all the service chiefs. The Supreme Court quickly ruled the firing was illegal. Meanwhile, Mr. Zelaya led a band of followers to air force headquarters and seized the illegal ballots, seeking to hold the referendum regardless. The Congress then acted to remove this renegade ruler and defend the Honduran constitution.

Mr. Zelaya is a demagogue in the mold of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who bolstered the Zelaya regime through a subsidized energy program called Petrocaribe and gave direct financial support through the ALBA Bank. The acronym stands for Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a Chavez-backed anti-U.S. alliance of nine Latin American states, prominently Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, all of which are pursuing explicitly anti-U.S. policies.

In throwing its unqualified support to Mr. Zelaya, the Obama administration is enabling America’s strategic foes. This shortsightedness is truly breathtaking and underscores the incoherence of the administration’s foreign policy. Smart power? We think not.

By sending Mr. Zelaya to El Salvador, the new government gave him the opportunity to rally world opinion. The exiled former president also benefited from the fact that the new government limited press coverage, which did not bolster the legitimacy of the transfer of power. Now Mr. Zelaya has secured the backing of numerous Latin American leaders, the United Nations and the United States. He had planned to return to Tegucigalpa on Thursday, but the Organization of American States has given Honduras three days to reinstate him. Honduran Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Zelaya on 18 charges, including abuse of power and treason.

Whatever the outcome of the crisis in Honduras, Mr. Obama has failed another key test of international leadership. The United States is in an increasingly perilous position in Latin America and needs solid allies to stem the anti-American tide being led by Venezuela. Mr. Obama should think twice before rushing to stand beside the likes of dictators such as Mr. Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. They support Mr. Zelaya because he is a fellow traveler, a socialist in good standing, a member of their anti-gringo alliance. There’s no reason for America to support him.

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