Honduras, Washington, and Liberal-Left Grasping at Straws

By Paul Street, ZNet, July 7, 2009

So liberal-left Obama supporters think they've got something to crow about in regard to Honduras. As George Ciccareillo-Maher noted recently on Counterpunch: "Previously resigned Obamaphiles, desperate to grasp at any shred of proof suggesting that they were right to get high on hope and expect imminent change, are closing ranks around their government and insisting that the U.S. government's response to the Honduran coup is proof positive of such change. Some even go so far as to claim that the Obama administration's support for Zelaya has been ‘unambiguous,' adding that ‘complaints that Washington hasn't acted fast enough to denounce the Honduran coup are silly and ignorant on the face of them.'"[1]


"Rebranding War and Occupation"

We'll return to Washington and Honduras in a moment, after some comments on why Obama's "progressive" fans are clutching at straws. It's been a weird and lonely time for many of them, what with Barack Obama's blatant escalation of terrorist, civilian-slaughtering war in South Asia, his apparently indefinite continuation of the Iraq occupation, his increase of the "defense" (empire) budget (Morgan Stanley reported last November that Obama rejects the silly concept of a "peace dividend"), his advance approval for an Israel attack on Iran, his refusal to move in any serious way against Israel's occupation of Palestine, his continuing refusal to permit Jean Bertrand Aristide back into the Caribbean, on (the list goes on and on).

Did anyone besides Noam Chomsky notice the June 10th New York Times article in which we learned that Obama was pressuring the Iraqi government not to permit the popular referendum required by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) - the withdrawal document forced on the Bush administration by the Iraqi resistance. As the Times explained, the Obama administration fears that the Iraqi population might insist on the immediate removal of all U.S. troops, rejecting the SOFA provision that delays U.S. withdrawal until 2012. Such insistence, described as "anti-Americanism" by U.S. officials, would be consistent with longstanding majority Iraqi opinion, recorded in Pentagon-run polls and other Western surveys. The legally mandated referendum (described by the Times as a "potent poison pill approved at the same time as the security agreement as a way to appease political factions that did not want to be tarred with the accusation that they had voted for a measure that allowed American soldiers to stay on Iraqi soil until 2012") was scheduled for July 30, 2009. In likely "deference to American concerns," the Times reported, the Iraqi cabinet declared its wish to delay the vote for six months so that it could be held at the same time as national elections in January "to save money and time."[2]

"Overall," the prolific left journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in mid-June of 2009, Obama is "implementing a U.S. foreign policy that in some ways --or, I think, in many ways--advances the interest of the American empire in a way the Republicans could only have dreamed of doing." Further:

"What people, I think, misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire - who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they're supporting radical change, when in effect what they're doing is supporting a radical expansion of the U.S. empire."

"I think that Obama is showing himself to be a master of misdirection--almost like a magician. He'll say a few things in his speech that sound like they're new, like a totally different U.S. approach, but then he'll also at the same time roll out a policy that is further than even Bush took things."

The title of the article in which Scahill made these comments said a mouthful: "Rebranding War and Occupation." [3] In comments made around the same time during a speech at the annual meetings of the International Socialist Organization, Scahill observed that "Obama is an incredibly Orwellian character. He can make people think that war is peace."[4]

"The Architects of Policy Protect Their Own Interests"

Then there's Obama's domestic agenda of, for, and by the wealthy Few. In the May 2009 edition of the centrist public affairs magazine The Atlantic, Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (no leftist!), argued that the Obama administration was for all intents and purposes in Wall Street's pocket. In an article titled "The Quiet Coup," Johnson argued that, in the words of the Atlantic's editors, "the finance industry has effectively captured our government— a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF's staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we're running out of time." By Johnson's account, "Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here...[the] elite business interests [who] played a central role in creating the crisis...with the implicit backing of the government" [are] "now using their influence to prevent precisely [the] reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive...The [Obama] government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them."[5]

Chomsky rightly sees this statement as chilling confirmation of the great 18th century economist and philosopher Adam Smith's warning that "the architects of policy protect their own interests, no matter how grievous the effect on others."

"And they are the architects of policy," Chomsky adds. "Obama made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the financial] sector."[6]

As giant financial bailouts for Wall Street oligarchs combined with growing destitution amongst the popular Many to expose the chasm between the investor and political classes and the broad citizenry last March, the liberal-left journalist and author William Greider made a telling observation in the Washington Post:

"People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn't. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where's my bailout,' became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform - a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid." [7]

A glowing Los Angeles Times assessment of Obama's first hundred Days reproduced an interesting statement from Obama to the leaders of the banking industry last March. As the financial chieftains began to complain to him about the public's failure to understand their industry's need for high levels of compensation, Obama cut them off. "Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen" Obama said. "The public isn't buying that. My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks." [8]

A student who told me about this Los Angeles Times report wrote me with an interesting comment: "The question for me (and I assume for many leftists) is why is Obama using his administration to protect the bankers from the angry rabble (us)? Why doesn't his administration simply address the people's needs and leave the bankers to their fate? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. We know that he is serving to protect and legitimate the highly undemocratic and destructive class system of state capitalism through another crisis."


Oh, but look, liberal-left Obama fans exult, there's Honduras! Yes, Honduras, where right-wing generals and politicians undertook a coup against a left-leaning and democratically elected president and....our "progressive" NOT Bush president.... DID NOT RUSH TO DEFEND the criminal action! He even "condemned" it!! Obama has "unambiguously" expressed his belief that the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, should be returned to power - an opinion shared with nearly every Latin American state and the United Nations General Assembly!!!

Isn't it wonderful, indicative of a dramatically new democratic day in U.S. foreign policy? Isn't it just so different from how the Bush-Cheney administration responded to the short-lived business-media-military coup against Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez in April of 2002? Hosanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Ho Sanna Hey Sanna Ho Superstar!

"Lukewarm, Proper, Belated, and Mixed"

Not so fast. Obama has responded with pronounced imperial ambiguity toward the blatantly illegal[9] coup, which was of course carried out by U.S.-trained and U.S. funded military forces and conducted with U.S.-supplied military equipment.[10] While he somewhat belatedly condemned the Honduran coup, Obama has "stepped lightly" (as the Washington Post put it)[11] when it comes to reacting. The White Houses possesses [12] but has yet (as of this writing, on the morning of Monday, July 6th) to decisively exercise the power to quickly restore Zelaya to his rightful office in Honduras, a nation whose government and economy had long been exceedingly dependent on the U.S.

On the first evening following the Honduran coup, Obama expressed "deep concern" regarding "the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya" and called on "all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms" and the "the rule of law" so as to resolve "existing tensions and disputes... through dialogue free from any outside interference." Still, the White House refused to officially/legally declare the removal of Zelaya "a coup." Making such a declaration would have triggered (under the Foreign Assistance Act) a cutoff of tens of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to the Central American nation.[13] John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras and a leading, blood-soaked figure in U.S. coordination of mass-murderous right-wing state terror across Central America under Ronald Reagan [14], told the Post that the Obama administration's disinclination to fully acknowledge the reality of recent events "appeared to reflect reluctance to see Zelaya returned unconditionally to power."[15]

Would the U.S. work seriously for Zelaya's return? Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We haven't laid out any demands that we're insisting on, because we're working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives."[16] Clinton refused to say whether the declared U.S. goal of "restoring the constitutional order" meant returning Zelaya to power. Her spokesperson Ian Kelly acknowledged on June 29th (one day after the coup) appeared to be holding back from calling the coup a coup because of White House hopes for some sort of "negotiated solution," [17] which could only have meant the possible return of Zelaya on more U.S. friendly terms.

The White House's tepid condemnation and measured rhetoric stood in sharp contrast to most Latin American nations' and the European Union's quick and sharp call for Zelaya's rapid and unconditional return to power, raising what economist and Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot called "suspicions about what the U.S. government is really trying to accomplish in this situation."[18]

Yesterday the Honduran government denied Zelaya's plane the right to land at the airport in Honduras' capital and killed at least two protestors calling for the restoration of democracy. In the wake of these events, Washington applauded as "positive" the coup's government's apparent willingness to "offer some sort of dialogue"[19] with the Organization of American States. As it turns out, however, the coup's foreign minister says this has proclaimed that Zelaya's return is "not negotiable."[20] According to the liberal-left journalist Al Giardano, "this situation has evolved beyond the capacity of diplomacy to solve it. Calling for ‘dialogue' - although it's what diplomats do, including in their sleep - isn't going to shake anything loose from [the coup leaders]. It is time for State to move aside and bring on the officials with the badges....The hour has now arrived for Washington to classify Honduras as a ‘military coup,' triggering the cut-off of aid to a country whose budget is 65 percent dependent on foreign assistance." [21]

Perhaps that will occur tomorrow or the day after - quite tardily from my perspective. Perhaps not. Either way, the veteran left U.S. foreign policy critic William Blum is right: "the response to the coup from the Obama administration can be described with adjectives such as lukewarm, proper but belated, and mixed." [23] It's certainly nothing for "liberal"-progressive types to write home to their leftist grandmas about - that's for sure. With just a tiny portion of the military and political force it pours into sustaining illegal invasions and occupations (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine) and dictatorships in oil-rich Southwest Asia, the Obama administration could (in line with majority Latin American and global opinion) have quickly and "unambiguously" restored the democratically elected president to power in Honduras. It seems likely that the White House is working to bring Zelaya back on a conditional basis (on the model of the Clinton administration's re-installation of Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1994)[22], returning him to power on more disciplined, U.S.-friendly terms. But, as Weisbrot notes, any effort to "extract concessions from Zelaya as part of a deal for his return to office" violate the essence of "how democracy works. If Zelaya wants to negotiate a settlement with his political opponent after he returns, that is another story. But nobody has the right to extract political concessions from him in exile, over the barrel of a gun."[24]

How Much Better Than Bush-Cheney 2002?

Insofar as there is anything "progressive" about the Obama administration's willingness to condemn the Honduran coup, much of the credit should go to popular forces and left political developments in Latin America. The southern half of the hemisphere (home to left governments now in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile has moved in a left-progressive direction since the failed coup against Chavez. The Obama operatives, smarter on the whole than the Bush team, certainly know very well that the balance of political forces and opinion has shifted in ways that would make it counter-productive to be seen as allied with a transparently criminal coup in Central America. They know they have bigger fish to fry in the oil-rich Middle East. At the same time, the Bush administration actually abandoned the anti-Chavez coup fairly quickly, once it saw the handwriting on the wall. As Weisbrot notes:

"Many press reports have contrasted the Obama administration's rejection of the Honduran coup with the Bush administration's initial support for the 2002 military coup that briefly overthrew President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. But actually there are more similarities than differences between the U.S. responses to these two events. Within a day, the Bush administration reversed its official position on the Venezuelan coup, because the rest of the hemisphere had announced that it would not recognize the coup government. Similarly, in this case, the Obama administration is following the rest of the hemisphere, trying not to be the odd man out but at the same time not really sharing their commitment to democracy"

"Washington Says it Tried Its Best"

Last but not least, there are some disturbing, yet-to-be answered questions about the Obama administration's role leading up to the coup. As Scahill noted one day after Zelaya's removal:

"It is impossible to imagine that the US was not aware that the coup was in the works. In fact, this was basically confirmed by The New York Times...While the US has issued heavily-qualified statements critical of the coup—in the aftermath of the events in Honduras—the US could have flexed its tremendous economic muscle before the coup and told the military coup plotters to stand down. The US ties to the Honduran military and political establishment run far too deep for all of this to have gone down without at least tacit support or the turning of a blind eye by some US political or military official(s)."

"Here are some facts to consider: the US is the top trading partner for Honduras. The coup plotters/supporters in the Honduran Congress are supporters of the ‘free trade agreements' Washington has imposed on the region. The coup leaders view their actions, in part, as a rejection of Hugo Chavez's influence in Honduras and with Zelaya and an embrace of the United States and Washington's ‘vision' for the region. Obama and the US military could likely have halted this coup with a simple series of phone calls." [25]

According to Blum in the latest edition of his always instructive Anti-Empire Report:

"The United States, by its own admission, was fully aware for weeks of the Honduran military's plan to overthrow Zelaya. Washington says it tried its best to change the mind of the plotters. It's difficult to believe that this proved impossible. During the Cold War it was said, with much justification, that the United States could discourage a coup in Latin America with ‘a frown.' The Honduran and American military establishments have long been on very fraternal terms. And it must be asked: In what way and to what extent did the United States warn Zelaya of the impending coup? And what protection did it offer him? It is not unthinkable that the United States gave the military plotters the go-ahead, telling them to keep the traditional "golpe" bloodiness to a minimum. Zelaya was elected to office as the candidate of a conservative party; he then, surprisingly, moved to the left and became a strong critic of a number of Washington policies, and an ally of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, both of whom the Bush administration tried to overthrow and assassinate."[26]

The administration can claim that it tried to "discourage" the coup in advance through conversations with top Honduran military officials. But, as Weisbrot notes, "It would be interesting to know what these discussions were like. Did administration officials say, ‘You know that we will have to say that we are against such a move if you do it, because every one else will?' Or was it more like, ‘Don't do it, because we will do everything in our power to reverse any such coup?'" As Weisbrot correctly observes, "The administration's actions since the coup indicate something more like the former, if not worse." [27]

"Rather Than Conform to America's Rules"

Obama recently told a Chilean reporter that the U.S. cannot apologize for its critical role in the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chile's then elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the bloody rule of the neo-fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. This, Obama explained, is because the U.S. is "an enormous force for good in the world," one that prefers to "look forward," not "backwards" (sound familiar?). Obama's lukewarm response to the Honduran coup of June 28 - ???? 2009 may fall short of what one might expect from such an "enormous force," but it fits rather nicely the imperial mindset articulated in his deeply conservative 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope:

"Of course there are those who would argue with my starting premise - that any global system built in America's image can alleviate misery in poorer countries...Rather than conform to America's rules, the argument goes, other countries should resist America's efforts to expand its hegemony; instead, they should follow their own path to development, taking their lead from left-leaning populists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or turning to more traditional principles of social organization, like Islamic law...I believe [Chavez and other] critics [of the U.S. and neoliberalism] are wrong...The system of free markets and liberal democracy... offer[s] people around the world their best chance at a better life" [28]

If I might step outside immediate events for a moment, it's worth noting that neoliberal global capitalism has offered no such thing, especially to Latin Americans. [29]Candidate Obama's reflections ended on a profoundly false judgment, properly rejected by "Mel" Zelaya, who came into office in early 2006 as a center-right politician but who subsequently moved left and shifted his desperately impoverished and U.S.-controlled nation into Hugo Chavez's socialist "Bolivarian Alternative for the America's" (ALBA).[30]

Paul Street is the author of many essays, speeches, chapters, reviews, and books, including (most recently) Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (order the latter at


1 George Ciccareillo-Maher, George Ciccariello-Maher, "The Counter-Revolution Will Not be Tweeteed," (July 5, 2009), read at quotes the intelligent but occasionally abusive Al Giardano, "America Held Hostage: Day Two of the Coup in Honduras," The Narcosphere (June 29, 2009), read at

2 Noam Chomsky, "Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours," Speech to the Riverside Church, New York City (June 12, 2009), transcript available at _crisis_and_hope; Alissa Rubin, "U.S. Moves Ahead With Vote on Security Pact," New York Times, June 10, 2009. As Chomsky noted, "the current U.S. efforts to prevent the legally required referendum are extremely revealing. Sometimes they're called ‘democracy promotion.'"

3 Jeremy Scahill and Anthony Arnove, "Rebranding War and Occupation," Socialist Worker (June 19, 2009).

4 Jeremy Scahill, "Barack Obama and U.S. Foreign Policy," speech at "Socialism 2009," annual conference of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), June 19, 2009, Chicago, Illinois.

5 Simon Johnson, "The Quiet Coup," The Atlantic (May 2009), read online at

6 Chomsky, "Crisis and Hope."

7 William Greider, "Obama told Us to Speak Out, But Is He Listening?" Washington Post, March 22, 2009.

8 Fay Fiore and Mark Barabak, "AUDACITY AND AMBITION: Obama Begins Leading America in a New Direction," Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2009.

9 Albert Vallente Thoreson, "Why Zelaya's Actions Were Legal," CounterPunch (July 1, 2009), read at; Mark Weisbrot, "Does the U.S. Back the Honduran Coup?" The Guardian (UK), July 1, 2009.

10 Evan Gollnger, "Obama's First Coup d'Etat: Honduran President Has Been Kidnapped," Venezuelanalaysis (June 29, 2009), read at; Nicholas Kozloff, "The Coup in Honduras: Obama's Real Message to Latin America?" CounterPunch (June 29, 2009), read at

11 Mary Beth Sheridan, "U.S. Condemns Honduran Coup: Still, Administration Steps Lightly," Washington Post, June 30, 2009, read at

12 Roberto Lovato, "Obama Has the Power and Responsibility to Restore Democracy in Honduras," Huffington Post (June 29, 2009), read at

13 FOX News, "Obama Calls for Order," FOX News (June 28, 2009), read at; Scahill, "A Few Thoughts;" Greg Grandin, "Democracy Derailed in Honduras," The Nation (June 30, 2009), read at; Reuters, "U.S. Could Cut Off Aid to Honduras After Coup," AlterNet (June 29, 2009), read at

14 Noam Chomsky, "John Negroponte: From Central America to Iraq" (July 28, 2004), pp. 89-92 in Chomsky, Interventions.

15 Sheridan, "U.S. Condemns Honduran Coup: Still, Administration Steps Lightly."

16 Quoted in Sheridan, "U.S. Condemns Honduran Coup."


18 Weisbrot, "Does the U.S. Back the Honduran Coup?"

19 Jose De Cordoba and David Luhnow, "Honduras Standoff Heats Up," The Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2009, p.A6.

20 Al Giardano, "Honduras Coup's Preconditions Leave Nothing to Negotiate," The Narcosphere (July 6, 2009), read at

21 Giardano, "Honduras Coup's Preconditions"

22 William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2005), pp. 202-03.

23 William Blum, The Anti-Empire Report (July 3, 2009), read at

24 Weisbrot, "Does the U.S. Back the Honduran Coup?"

25 Jeremy Scahill, "A Few Thoughts on the Coup in Honduras," Common Dreams (June 30, 2009), read at

26 Blum, Anti-Empire Report.

27 Weisbrot, "Does the U.S. Back the Honduran Coup?"

28 Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York, 2006), p. 315.

29 Mark Weisbrot, "The Mirage of Progress," American Prospect (January 1, 2002), read at; Mark Weisbrot, "Globalization Fails to Deliver the Goods," Common Dreams (August 29, 2002), read at

30 Kozloff, "The Coup in Honduras;" Grandin, "Democracy Derailed."

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