You and Whose Army?

Matt Barganier, June 30, 2009

I’m no scholar on Honduras, to say the least, so I’ll assume the basic facts regarding recent events are in accord with this opinion piece calling for ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s reinstatement:


Zelaya’s fatal mistake was in organizing a de facto referendum to test the idea of allowing him a second term. Honduras’s Constitution explicitly forbids holding referendums — let alone an unsanctioned “popular consultation” — to amend it and, more specifically, to modify the presidential term. Unsurprisingly, the president’s idea met with resistance from Congress, nearly all political parties (including his own), the press, the business community, electoral authorities, and, crucially, the Supreme Court, which deemed the whole endeavor illegal.

Last week, when Zelaya ordered the armed forces to distribute the electoral material to carry out what he called an “opinion poll,” the military commander refused to comply and was summarily dismissed (he was later reinstated by the Supreme Court). The president then cited the troubling history of military intervention in Honduran politics, a past that the country — under more prudent governments — had made great strides in leaving behind in the past two decades. He neglected to mention that the order he had issued was illegal. …

Now the Honduran military has responded in kind: An illegal referendum has met an illegal military intervention, with the avowed intention of protecting the Constitution.

I’m no fan of military coups, or, well, militaries period. But is a military that doesn’t reflexively obey the chief executive the worst thing in the world?

Yes, I understand that there’s a long history of military dictatorship in Latin America, so this sort of thing immediately provokes justified worry. But if the executive of a country is behaving lawlessly, if he flagrantly ignores the constitution, courts, and legislature, then who, exactly, is supposed to rein him in, and how? In modern nation-states, the military and police hold the overwhelming balance of physical force. Any attempt to check or remove an executive, for reasons good or bad, ultimately rests on either the executive’s willingness to obey the law or the armed forces’ willingness to disobey him. I wish it weren’t that way – after all, I’m a fringe lunatic who wants to abolish the state entirely – but it is. You can’t just sprinkle constitution dust on an out-of-control president and make him behave.

Look, steroidal executives in both dictatorships and democracies have traditionally viewed standing armies and police forces as their personal gangs. Witness Andrew Jackson’s reputed sneer in the wake of the Supreme Court’s pro-Cherokee ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832): “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!” Whether Jackson actually said that or not, his actions demonstrated his belief that he who has the guns is the law. Gosh, wouldn’t it have been a tragedy for the Army to disobey that democratically elected president!

And what if a year ago, then-president George W. Bush had said to hell with the 22nd Amendment and decided to hold a referendum on whether he should be allowed a third term? Many American lefties are convinced that Bush stole both the 2000 and 2004 elections, so I know they wouldn’t have tolerated such a proposal for a heartbeat. But even if you don’t believe Bush stole those elections (and I don’t), and even if you think he stood little chance of winning his referendum, there would have been more than enough reason to oppose such a move. It’s the kind of thing that sets a terrible precedent, you know.

UPDATE: Just so there’s no confusion, I’m less interested in the specifics of the Honduras case than in the general issue of the “cult of the presidency.” But the Honduras case is interesting, because, as far as I know, there are no allegations of outside meddling (certainly not by the U.S. government, which supports Zelaya), and the military appears to have relinquished control to the civilian government immediately. So why, when a president flouts the lawful demands of every other branch of the government and gets unceremoniously canned, do we automatically call that “undemocratic”? At which point in a democratically elected executive’s illegal power-grabbing do we decide that it’s OK for the people or their other elected representatives to act forcefully? Why always side with the executive?




20 Responses to “You and Whose Army?”

  1. When I first read about it, coup didn't sound like the correct word. I suppose removing an unconstitutional president only counts as a coup in a country without constitutional means to do so, but it's hard to complain about a military that refuses an illegal order. I wish the US had that.

  2. While I agree that the executive branch of the government should be held in check, there is some evidence of US intervention. Both the leader of the coup and the Air Force are graduates of the School of the Americas from Fort Benning. However the fact that they didn't just shoot him dead or blow up his car makes me doubt that this was US intervention.

    Unfortunately I believe that the only way to save our country is with military intervention. I don't advocate violence in any way and I wish the Sheeple would wake up before all is lost. But you know the saying, wish in one hand and $hi# in the other, wait and see which one fills up first!

    We need to take our country back and soon, and the only way to do that without blowing up half of the US is to get the pentagon on our side. The first step is for states to stage tax revolts and strikes, cut the purse strings and see what happens.

    Peace!

  3. Both the leader of the coup and the Air Force are graduates of the School of the Americas from Fort Benning.

    That's not really evidence of U.S. intervention in the normal sense, as you note in your next sentence. A lot of Latin American military leaders have received U.S. training, which is bad, but that doesn't mean they're always taking orders from the U.S. government. Obama has plainly stated his support for Zelaya.

  4. Interesting that Zelaya took refuge in Costa Rica with Oscar Arias. Arias successfully challenged the Costa Rican constitution, which also had a single-term clause, and is currently serving a second term there.

    From Wiki:
    "The Costa Rican constitution had been amended to include a clause which forbade former presidents seeking reelection. Arias challenged this in Sala IV, the Constitutional Court, which initially rejected his application. Arias then used his considerable political connections to alter the Court´s composition and, with a majority of members favorable to his cause, succeeded at the second attempt to have the constitution changed."

  5. "Coup" definately isn't the right word. Generally, a coup is when the military takes unilateral action against the standing ruler and props it's own ruler in the power seat (usually a general, but sometimes another powerful person who is paying the army generously). Considering that the Honduran army is taking its orders from the democratically elected Congress and the interim president is from the ousted Zelaya's OWN PARTY I fail to see how this is in any way comparable to your standard Latin American coup. If nothing else democracy seems to be working in Honduras better than any country on earth!

    I only with the US Congress had a quarter of the intestinal fortitude of their Honduran counterparts. I think we would be a lot better off chucking presidents out the door who showed even the slightest disdain for the national Constitution.

    Also, Is anyone else concerned that Obama was very slow in condeming the Iranian government for their actions but wasted very little time in denouncing the Honduran government? Why the double standard? There is much more to this than we are being told.

  6. Leave it to a Libertarian to apologize for a military coup d'etat. It is no coincidence that the deposed leader happens to be a leftist, thus making it all the easier to justify removing him from office. And what, exactly, was Zelaya's "crime"? He wanted to hold a non-binding poll on the future of his administration. Oh, the horror!

    But even if Zelaya is guilty of the heinous crime of poll-taking, like almost any other democracy on earth Honduras has the legal framework to deal with elected officials who break the law. The coup has chucked all that into the dustbin; it is a throwback to the "bad old days" of Pinochet, Arbenz, Somoza and the Duvalier's and there is no possible justification for it whatsoever.

    (P.S. Sorry if this is something of a repost; I'm not sure if the first one went through.)

  7. I know it's off subject but this new blog format is terrible. Anti-war.com I know that times are tough and I don't mind the adds but why did you change this format? You have probably turned off many of your readers. I don't know if I'm the only one that agrees but I doubt it.

    Peace!

  8. MESSAGE FROM HONDURAS (From a long time Antiwar supporter)

    I live in Honduras. My wife and I retired here, 14 years ago. We love living here. It is a beautiful Country populated by mostly hard working, honest people who wish to live with peace and opportunity.

    Three and a half years ago, Mel Zelaya was elected President of Honduras. He ran in the Liberal Party, roughly the equivalent of the Democrat Party in the USA. He campaigned on a conservative note. Things changed pretty rapidly after he took office. He has been a disaster to private initiative of every kind; personal, entrepreneurial, and industrial. He ignored all but his own executive branch of Government. (Honduras, like the USA, has a "checks and balances" system comprised of a Congress and Supreme Court.) . Zelaya's support was very limited from rich and poor alike, the only exceptions being some indigenous (no doubt deserving) that he showered with benefits and promises of much more.

    Zelaya's removal was a Democratic move (Impeachment Equivalent) to try to restore order in a country falling into the abyss because of a corrupt President that was becoming more dictatorial by the day, under the tutelege of Hugo Chavez. The Supreme Court and Congress worked together for several days to assure continuance of Democracy, in lieu of the Dictatorial Socialist path Zelaya was following. There has been NO rupture of Democracy here. Roberto Micheletti, President of the National Congress and a member of Zelaya's own Party was named interim President, to remain until elections scheduled in November (which Zelaya had wanted to abrogate to remain in power). Micheletti has already appointed a cabinet of good advisors, a couple of them I've met, and in whom I have confidence. I can pretty well assure you that if the new Government continues, it will be more democratic and transparent than the Zelaya Government.

    It seems most inappropriate that world leaders roundly oppose the replacement of Former President Mel Zelaya, when they know little or nothing about the situation here.

    I would appreciate it if world leaders would come to Honduras and review the situation on the ground before pontificating about Law and Constitution. It is Zelaya who did the first "golpe de estado" through a large number of actions. The National Congress simply did its part to preserve Democracy here.

    Please pass this message to everyone who might be interested. We don't need brickbats, we need support. We do not need to be the next Socialist victim.

    Pray for Honduras. God Bless Honduras.

  9. Apperently, the failed referendum of Subnday was nothing to do with an eventual reelection of the President:

    http://www.poliblogger.com/?p=16138

  10. Well, if that's true, then almost all of the commentary on the subject from all angles has been incorrect on the basic facts. Ah, the perils of minding other people's business…

  11. Politicians who "diddle" with the plumbing that allows them to stay in office have no real respect for the institution or those who unwittingly support them. Its all about THEM and what they can get out of you. Never trust a pol who feels he's "needed".

  12. So the "democratic move" was to have the Honduran military roust the President from his bed, under gunfire and in the wee hours of the morning, stuff him on a plane — still in his pajamas — and force him into exile.

    This "democratic move" still looks an awful lot like a military coup.

    It's nice to know that there are neocons in Honduras, too.

  13. As I said above, to try to rationalize this coup as some sort of legal response to President Zelaya's attempt to conduct a non-binding poll is completely unjustified. It is as phony as saying that invading Iraq was justified because of Saddam Hussein's WMDs and links to al-Qaeda.

    But beyond the twisted logic involved in declaring this coup to be "not a coup", it is simply a bad move for the Honduran military and Zelaya's political opponents. Most news accounts indicate Zelaya's popularity in Honduras was plummeting and, had he been allowed to conduct his poll, the Honduran public would probably have voted against it (see the link in Miguel Medeira's post, below, for the full text of Zelaya's plebicite). The coup has been condemned by the OAS, the UN and Barack Obama (he has condemned both the Honduran coup and the Iranian elections — no inconsistency there), and Zelaya has become a hero. It might not be enough to restore him to the presidency of his country, but he's certainly more popular than he was just a few days ago.

    The crimes of George W. Bush were far worse than anything Zelaya may have even contemplated. Yet as satisfying as it would be to see the U.S. military kidnap Bush and exile him to Elba, I would still object to that course of action and I would demand he be returned to office — taking to the streets, if necessary. Again, there can be no possible justification for the coup in Honduras. Unless, of course, you're a fascist or a neocon.

  14. *(I should note that the hypothetical situation, above, involving Junior Bush assumes the kidnapping took place while he was still President.)

  15. Of course, I'm both a fascist and a neocon. And you're right, the removal of a president (justified or not) by indigenous forces for his alleged transgressions against the country's own laws is exactly like the invasion of Iraq. I can't think of a better analogy. Oh, Timmy, please teach me to think like you!

  16. [...] despite being a fascist and all, I have no side in this dispute, but could we all chill with the instant canonization of [...]

  17. Hey, if the shoe fits. It seems the only people really supporting this coup are fascists, neocons, and the [i]Wall Street Journal[/i].

    Furthermore, your characterization of the Honduran junta as "indigenous forces" is quite amusing. They're "indigenous" in the sense that, yes, they're Hondurans. But they don't represent the rule of law or the people of Honduras — or anything other than domination by brute military force. And to quote Justin Raimundo's recent commentary:

    "What’s going on in Honduras is yet another chapter in the protracted struggle against the unrestrained power – economic as well as political – of the military, and, as such, Zelaya’s is a righteous cause."

  18. *Hey, if the shoe fits. It seems the only people really supporting this coup are fascists, neocons, and the [i]Wall Street Journal[/i].*

    I love leftists. Disagree with them, and you're not merely mistaken, you're a fascist/anti-Semite/racist/homophobe/etc.

    *Furthermore, your characterization of the Honduran junta as "indigenous forces" is quite amusing. They're "indigenous" in the sense that, yes, they're Hondurans.*

    So they're indigenous in the sense that they're indigenous? Thanks for clearing that up. I confused myself by using the term correctly.

  19. When did Antiwar.com become a vehicle for militarist propaganda? It is appalling to find Mr. Barganier's column is on this site. Masked behind some false naivete, Mr. Barganier "wonders" about the "cult of the presidency," yet does not wonder about the more powerful "cult of the militarists." A military coup, led by a School of the Americas-trained general no less, ousting a President who was NOT calling for a non-binding referendum but was instead acting within Honduran law (but against the wishes of powerful forces there), should be opposed by all who consider themselves to be "antiwar."

    From which branch of government is the military if not the executive? In the absence of an elected executive, or in the case of his/her removal, from where does the military take its orders? The answer, of course, is that under these circumstances the military refuses all civilian authority, ruling in collaboration with wealthy elites against the will of the majority. This is pretty basic stuff. If you don't want to be called a "neocon" or "fascist," you might try avoiding arguments defending military coups, particularly in a country whose military has been controlled by the Pentagon for most of the last 40 years.

    Just because "Safariman" claims to be a "longtime Antiwar supporter" does not make him honest, or disqualify him as an outside plant. Like Mr. Barganier, "Safariman" is defending the indefensible in supporting an undemocratic (including suspension of habeas corpus, due process, and freedom of assembly) military coup against an elected government. Hundreds of thousands of Hondurans are fighting in the streets to make this very point. He wants "world leaders" to come to Honduras to check out the situation? No need. US warships are off the coast monitoring every action and providing "logistical support." How dumb do you people think we are?

    More ridiculous, however, and transparent, are "Safariman" throwing Hugo Chavez into the mix as a bogeymanproponent of "dictatorial" power. Mr. Chavez has been elected by landslide margins in the last two elections, much to the chagrin of the US government and local elites. With regard to Honduras, Mr. Zalaya's term was up in the end of 2010 and he had not sought re-election. Further, it appears likely that he will be reinstated within the next two days, much to the disappointment of writers and commenters at antiwar.com, it appears. Safariman's comments are demonstrably false and deliberately misleading. This is what we used to all recognize as DISINFORMATION. Please go back undercover, Safariman.

    For better reporting, try <a href="http://www.narconews.com/.” target=”_blank”>http://www.narconews.com/.

  20. uncle sham…………..guilty until proven innocent