Why Obama Won't Use the M-Word for Honduras' Coup

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Jose Cabezas / AFP / Getty

Honduran soldiers supported by an armored vehicle remain inside the presidential palace.

The Obama Administration tried again this week to take on the coupsters of Honduras. With more than two months passed since Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was exiled in a military ouster — and less than three months to go before his impoverished Central American nation holds new presidential elections — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jabbed harder at the coup leaders to get them to let Zelaya back into Honduras and finish his democratically elected term. The U.S. cut all non-humanitarian aid to the de facto government, about $32 million; revoked the visas of all civilian and military officials who backed the June 28 coup, and threatened not to recognize the results of the Nov. 29 elections unless Zelaya is returned to office.

The measures could move de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti to sign on to the San Jose Accord, brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, which stipulates Zelaya's restoration and immunity for the coup participants. They may also help restore President Obama's standing among Latin American leaders, who have unanimously condemned the coup, as Obama has, but who have questioned the U.S. President's commitment to matching his rhetoric with action. U.S. officials called the latest sanctions "a strong signal" that Obama has reversed Washington's historic tendency to abide if not back coups carried out against its foes (the leftist Zelaya is a critic of the U.S.) and that he's defending democratic process in the hemisphere.

But the Administration also sent a significant mixed signal. It didn't use the m-word: Military. Its lawyers have determined that while Zelaya's overthrow was a coup d'etat, it was not technically a military coup. The main reason: even though soldiers threw Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint, in his pajamas, he was not replaced with a military leader. Instead, Micheletti, a civilian who headed Honduras' Congress, was made President. Other "complicating factors," as the U.S. calls them, include lingering questions about which Honduran institution — Congress, the Supreme Court or the Army — actually ordered Zelaya's removal after he openly defied a high court edict not to hold a non-binding referendum on constitutional reform.

The legal semantics matter. If the State Department labels a coup "military" — the most brutal and anti-democratic kind of overthrow — it automatically triggers a suspension of all non-humanitarian and non-democracy-related U.S. aid. In the case of Honduras, State Department officials insist that those measures have already been taken without the military-coup tag. But critics, who fear Obama is keeping the Honduras coup designation downgraded to mollify conservative Republicans, argue that further steps, like freezing Honduran bank accounts in the U.S., are still available to the Administration.

Either way, foreign policy analysts say Obama is setting a precarious precedent by trying to have it both ways. In the future, restless militaries in other countries may look at the U.S.'s Honduras ruling and decide coups are worth chancing as long as they don't install a guy wearing epaulettes in the president's chair. In that scenario, a full-bore U.S. aid cut-off won't kick in by default — and there's always the possibility, they'll reason, that the White House won't adopt enough punitive steps to make them cry uncle in the end.

The U.S.'s non-military coup rating is especially dicey given that two of Honduras' neighbors, El Salvador and Guatemala, recently elected leftist presidents who could also find themselves in the crosshairs of their countries' overweening generals. "I think the armies and the business elites they back in those countries are watching the Obama Administration's moves on Honduras very closely," says Vicki Gass, a senior associate at the independent Washington Office on Latin America. While Gass applauds Clinton's threat to reject Honduras' November election results as a "very positive step that shows the U.S. is serious again about multilateral effort in Latin America," she fears the U.S. has "created risks in other countries" by not designating Honduras' putsch as military.

The Obama Administration has political reasons for eschewing the m-word. The most important is that calling an overthrow a military coup requires certification by Congress — where Obama and Clinton foresee a fight they'd rather avoid. Conservative Republicans are angry at Obama's support of Zelaya, who they insist was trying to remove presidential term limits in Honduras and usher in a socialist government like that of his oil-rich left-wing ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As a result, they're blocking a number of the White House's State Department appointees, including Arturo Valenzuela, Obama's pick to oversee western hemisphere affairs.

But in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week, Democratic Representative Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that whatever Zelaya's alleged infractions, they should have been addressed legally, not militarily. "It's time to call this bird what it is," a military coup, and move on with whatever tougher sanctions that might mean in order to get the Micheletti regime to back down, Berman wrote. Obama and Clinton still feel a negotiated settlement in Honduras can be reached. But the Micheletti regime, which human rights groups say has cracked down violently on many Zelaya supporters (a charge it denies), has so far indicated it won't be swayed by the latest U.S. sanctions.

A negotiated settlement is indeed the preferred solution. But the problem is that the U.S. loses leverage in that process when, by not calling Zelaya's ouster a military coup, it gives coup leaders the impression that what they did was merely second- or third-degree coup-mongering instead of the first-degree military kind. When the military hauls away a democratically elected president, it's a military coup, period, regardless of who takes power afterward. It's a rule that needs to apply not just in Honduras, but whenever the U.S. has to take on coupsters.