Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reporting the Honduras Coup, or, "How Some on the Left Are Reinforcing Ridiculous Perceptions of Obama"

Suffice to say, the coup in Honduras is a complex issue involving multiple power-struggles that cut to the core of how power is interpreted and assigned within the Honduran political system. Many people are trying to stay at the front of this story (including us), either through journalism or through analysis. However, as is typically the case in events like these, such quick rushes to judgement often look idiotic.

So it goes when one person has labeled this coup "Obama's First Coup d'Etat." Now, this could be interpreted in one of two ways: that it's the first coup that happened while Obama was president, or that it was the first coup he was involved with, directly or indirectly. I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on the first interpretation, and it seemed that that may have been her viewpoint through the text. However, if it was, her updates leave her open to huge misinterpretation. Throughout the updates (which are frequent), Golinger repeatedly comments on Obama's failure to come out "fast enough" against the coup. I don't exactly know what she expects such a quick rush to judgement from the Obama administration will accomplish, but it's clear that she feels that, by not coming out "unequivocably" against the coup immediately, Obama is betraying some vague desire not to see Zelaya in power.

Fortunately, as Obama said in a recent press conference, the president of the U.S. doesn't work on a "24-hour news schedule." Instead (wonder of wonders), he waits to be informed of exactly what is going on, tries to let events play out some without directly jumping in and making matters worse, and then states his opinion. Indeed, yesterday Obama said that "the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras." I already know what many would say: "It's too netural," "if Obama really weren't behind the coup, why not say it's 'illegal'," "why doesn't he say 'we fully support Zelaya/oppse the coup'," etc. My answer would be because Obama does have to consider broader-picture issues, and nobody knows how this is going to work out; to blindly pick one side or another before it becoming clear exactly how events will play out over the next hours or days can lead to a huge backfire. Just ask the Bush administration when they supported the failed coup of Chavez immediately in 2002.

Why does this matter? Sure, it's clearly in a partisan online publication that favors Venezuela and looks with very skeptical eyes at U.S. policy, but it's just one site. So what?

The problem is, I found this by getting it from friends in South America. This story is making the rounds among young people (and perhaps older people) who consider themselves "leftist" or "intellectuals" in Laitn America. They may not buy into it, but people generally don't foward stuff without comment if they think it's ridiculous. As a result, this image of the U.S. effectively doing in Honduras under Obama what Bush tried in Venezuela reinforces an image of Obama as just another imperialist bastard out of touch with the world.

This irritates me to no end for the same reasons that accusations in Brazil that Obama is "just like Bush" irritate me: because such positions couldn't be further from the truth. Look, I'm not going to pretend that Obama will be perfect, or that I (or the "left" more generally, whomever it may be at that moment) will always like his policies. We haven't already, and we won't. But to imply that he is no different from Bush simply because he's the head of the U.S. is beyond absurd, particularly given his penchant thus far to do things like, you know, be informed of a situation, listen to others' opinions, and welcome differing viewpoints before making decisions. Vague insinuations and charges from the left (within or outside of the U.S.) that this is "Obama's coup" and condemnations that his wording isn't "strong enough" are as absurd as charges from the right in the U.S. that Obama's response to Iran likewise wasn't "strong enough."

In some ways, this isn't Obama's or the bloggers'/journalists'/intellectuals' fault. As the Times points out today, the overthrow of Zelaya is "pitting Mr. Obama against the ghosts of past American foreign policy in Latin America." And there are a lot of ghosts, from the Mexican-American war and the takeover of 1/3 of Mexico's territory at the time, to the Spanish-American war and the turning of Cuba into a virtual American territory, to the involvement in Guatemala in 1954, to Chile in 1973, to Argentina during the Dirty War, to Guatemala and El Salvador, to the Contras in Nicaragua, to Noriega in Panama, to Chavez...and that only scratches the surface of horrible political moves the U.S. has made. This isn't to excuse Golinger's interpretation, but it's not like she doesn't have her reasons historically.

But there are constructive ways to use that past together with the current administration to try to effect change in U.S. policy. Calling the coup in Honduras "Obama's first coup," with the perjorative connotation that brings (reinforced through constant updates chiding Obama for not coming out with a "strong" statement against the coup), in no way helps anything, is in no way in touch with political realities in international politics, and ultimately makes the left look as ridiculous as those on the right who condemned Obama when it came to Iran.