Dispatches from the Edge: A Coup at Foggy Bottom

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:54:00 AM

Watching the Obama administration’s about-face in the Middle East and Latin America raises an uncomfortable question: have neo-conservative Democrats—a section closely associated with the Clinton wing of the party—undermined U.S. foreign policy? Whatever the source of the shifts, their effect has been to heighten tensions in both areas of the world and marginalize the United States just as it was beginning to break out of the isolation of the Bush years. 

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton abandoned the White House’s demand to halt the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it not only drew outrage from U.S. allies like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it brought into question the entire peace process. For the first time in decades, Palestinians are threatening to unilaterally declare a state, and some are openly raising the possibility of abandoning a two-state solution in favor of a single bi-national entity.  

A bi-national solution would “spell the end of Israel as a democratic state,” editorialized the Financial Times. “It would come to resemble in many ways the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. If [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu believes that he has achieved a victory by refusing to halt the settlements, he is wrong. It is more like a project of national suicide.” 

The Economist put the blame squarely on Obama: “From the Palestinian and Arab points of view, his administration…has meekly capitulated to Israel.” 

The recent announcement that Israel would build 900 units in East Jerusalem suggests that the Netanyahu government feels it can now act without fear of a break with Washington. While Tel Aviv announced a 10-week “freeze” last week, the “freeze” will not cover 3,000 units already under construction, more than 20 “public” buildings, or any of the new construction in East Jerusalem.  

If outrage is the reaction to the administration’s U-turn in the Middle East, shock is the common response in Latin America to the State Department’s about-face on the Honduran coup.  

When President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the military June 28, the White House joined the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations in demanding his reinstatement. “We believe the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the democratically elected president there,” said Obama. 

Now, according to State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, the United States intends to break that pledge and recognize the winner of the Nov. 29 elections, which were organized by the coup government. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, demonstrations opposed to the election have been savagely repressed.  

So far, only Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Guatemala have supported the U.S. position.  

Almost overnight, the good will Obama created by his Cairo address to the Muslim world, and his administration’s quick denunciation of the Honduran coup has vanished.  

What happened?  

On Honduras, the Republicans are taking credit for the administration’s change of heart. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) claims it was his hold over two State Department nominees that caused the White House to drop its support of Zelaya. DeMint said he was “very thankful” that Obama and Clinton “have finally taken the side of the Honduran people.”  

According to COIMER & OP poll, only 22.2 percent of Hondurans support the coup government led by Roberto Micheletto.  

But it seems unlikely that the White House would cave over two appointments. In fact, the State Department had begun backing away from Obama’s statement long before DeMint came into the picture. Zelaya’s name was suddenly dropped in favor of a formula that called for a “return to constitutional order.” 

A muscular foreign policy—and strong support for Israel—are policies that have long been touchstones for the right wing of the Democratic Party. It was the Clinton administration that first intervened in the Colombian civil war, bombed the Sudan, and launched the war against Serbia. Secretary Clinton, along with other hawks, is pushing for a major expansion of the war in Afghanistan. 

It seems more likely that the State Department’s support for the Nov. 29 election was a not-so-subtle shot across the bow aimed at countries that the United States considers unfriendly. 

The recent release of a U.S. Air Force document on the current U.S.-Colombian military agreement suggests that the United States is indeed preparing to exert greater military power in Latin America. According to Venezuelan lawyer Eva Golinger, the document, submitted to the U.S. Congress last May as part of the 2010 budget considerations, contradicts claims by the United States and the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe that the deployment of U.S. forces in Colombia is solely aimed at local narcotics traffic and terrorism, and will not affect Colombia’s neighbors.  

The agreement says U.S. deployment in seven bases scattered around Colombia will allow Washington to engage in “full spectrum military operations in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorists insurgencies…and anti-U.S. governments…” And further, that the Palanquero Base in particular “…will also increase our capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), improve global reach, support logistics requirements, improve partnerships, improve theater security cooperation and expand expeditionary warfare capability.” * 

In a statement that had a strong whiff of the Monroe Doctrine about it, U.S. Southern Command head General Douglas Fraser warned that Iran’s “growing influence” in the region poses a “potential risk.” Speaking in Miami last June, the General charged that Iran is building connections to “extremist organizations” on the continent, and has forged close ties with Venezuela and Cuba. 

The United States recently reactivated the Fifth Fleet, giving it the ability to project considerable naval power throughout Latin America. 

The scope of the Colombia base agreement should make a number of countries nervous, especially those that the State Department considers “anti-U.S.”: Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. The term “unfriendly” could also include Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and even Brazil, which has helped lead a continent-wide independence movement against U.S. domination of the region. 

The Bolivian government of Evo Morales charges that U.S. organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) support a separatist movement in the oil and gas rich eastern provinces of the country. This past April, Bolivian special forces stormed a hotel in Santa Cruz—the center of the anti-Morales movement—and killed several heavily armed mercenaries who apparently planned to sow chaos in the province.  

Weapons and explosives used to attack Morales supporters were traced to wealthy business owners who are active in the rightwing separatist Santa Cruz Civic Committee. The Committee has received support from USAID and NED. 

Venezuela says that the Colombian bases threaten the government of Hugo Chavez, against whom the U.S. supported a short-lived coup in 2002. Chavez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa both charge that the United States aided a recent invasion of Ecuador by Colombian troops seeking out members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Ecuador’s Defense Minister, Javier Ponce, has requested a meeting with President Obama over the U.S.-Colombia agreement. 

The atmosphere in Paraguay is tense following the removal of the country’s top military leaders by leftist President Fernando Lugo. There have been several coup attempts since the end of the 35-year military dictatorship in 1989, and Chavez recently charged that a plan to overthrow Lugo was recently hatched in Bolivia by “ultra-rightwing elements.” 

In neighboring Uruguay left-wing former guerrilla Jose “Pepe” Mujica won the election for president, and some of the right-wing in that country vows he will never be allowed to take power. 

An outbreak of coups in all these countries seems unlikely, but is certainly not out of the question, particularly if right-wingers—who dominated the continent throughout the 1980s and ’90s—think overthrowing an “unfriendly” government will be met with a wink and a nod from Washington.  

U.S. support for the Honduran elections effectively torpedoed a diplomatic solution to the crisis. When Micheletti formed a “unity” government excluding Zelaya, the ousted president, holed up in the Brazilian embassy, announced that the U.S.-brokered agreement was “dead.” The Honduran congress said it would not consider reinstating Zelaya until after the election. 

United States isolation on this issue is palpable.  

Meeting in Jamaica, the foreign ministers of the Rio Group—every country in Latin America and most the Caribbean—called for reinstating Zelaya. OAS President Jose Miguel Insulza demanded that the Honduran government be led by its “legitimate” president. Both the UN and the European Union say they will not recognize the Nov. 29 elections. 

More than 240 leading U.S. academics and Latin American experts sent a letter to Obama calling on the State Department to denounce human rights violations by the Micheletti government and re-instate Zelaya. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka demanded that the Obama administration oppose the Nov. 29 election and return Zelaya to the presidency. 

Mark Weisbrot, director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, says unless the Obama administration reverses course, it is going to be “just as isolated as Bush vis-à-vis the hemisphere.” 

Whatever the explanation for the shift in foreign policy, there is little argument about the results: anger, charges of betrayal, and a diminishment of hope, from the Middle East to Latin America. 


*Readers can access the report at