(IPS) – When the Honduran military deposed President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday, in an incident that stirred memories of Cold War military coups in Latin America, it also seems to have caused at least some foreign policy commentators here to revert to positions reminiscent of the Cold War.
While the Organisation of American States (OAS), the U.N. General Assembly, and the U.S. government all condemned Zelaya’s detention and forced exile, the coup makers found supporters among neo-conservatives and other right-wing U.S. hawks, who defended the military’s action as a justified reaction what they claimed was an unconstitutional power grab by Zelaya.
The hawks’ support for the coup, which came as media reports from Honduras described a violent police crackdown against demonstrators and a government-imposed media blackout throughout the country, may have been surprising to many observers.
After all, only days before many of the same commentators were fiercely decrying similar scenes coming out of Tehran, and calling for U.S. President Barack Obama to stand up for democracy in Iran against what was frequently described as a coup by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But to those with longer memories, this apparent discrepancy was anything but surprising.
For although neo-conservatism has in recent years become identified with former President George W. Bush’s "Freedom Agenda", and aggressive U.S. support for democracy promotion in the Middle East and beyond, the ideology has a very different history in Latin America.
During the Cold War, neo-conservatives were known as staunch defenders of right-wing authoritarians as counterweights to leftist movements in the region. These included Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jose Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala, and the military junta in Argentina – not to mention the former Honduran Chief of Staff, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who was so brutal and imperious that his fellow officers threw him out of the country in 1984.
Support for right-wing authoritarianism, both in Latin America and in Iran, and blistering criticism of Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy comprised the core of the movement’s early manifesto, Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 essay in Commentary magazine, "Dictatorships and Double Standards". Ronald Reagan was so impressed with the article that he made Kirkpatrick his ambassador to the United Nations.
The current debate over Honduras serves as a reminder that the simple polarities of recent foreign policy discussions, in which a "neo-conservatism" identified with democracy promotion is contrasted with a "realism" identified with acceptance of authoritarian governments, disguise a more complex history.
After all, even as neo-conservatives championed democratic "transformation" in the Middle East during the Bush administration, they applauded the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002 and were deeply disappointed by its failure.
Two years later, they welcomed the forcible exile of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide aboard a U.S. Air Force jet in the face of an uprising by former military officers and their paramilitary allies.
At the time, they argued that the two presidents were dangerous, power-hungry – albeit democratically elected – demagogues who, if left unchecked, would wreck the constitutional order and threaten U.S. interests.
They have made similar claims against Zelaya who had clearly managed to antagonise other branches of government, including the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that his effort to hold a non-binding referendum on the possibility of amending the constitution was unconstitutional, precipitating a series of events that culminated in his ouster.
"Yes, Zelaya was elected, but Hitler was as well, and Chavez also was," said influential Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. "A coup isn’t a nice thing, but it’s preferable to having Zelaya dismantle the democracy."
Similarly, the right-wing National Review editorialised that "[t]he Honduran soldiers who escorted Pres. Manuel Zelaya from his home on Sunday were acting to protect their country’s democracy, not to trample it".
But the actual means by which he was ousted – specifically the decision by the military to intervene in what was essentially a political dispute by arresting him and dispatching him to Costa Rica – bore all the hallmarks of a conventional coup d’etat, even if it was ratified by the Congress immediately afterward.
The OAS has already resolved "to condemn vehemently the coup d’etat" against Zelaya, called for his "immediate, safe, and unconditional return" to office by a deadline of Friday, and vowed that "no government arising from this unconstitutional eruption will be recognised." After some hesitation, Obama Monday also condemned the military’s actions as "not legal" and called for his restoration. In addition to arguing that Zelaya had himself acted in an unconstitutional manner, neo-conservatives also stressed his ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leftist leaders – and the alleged threat they pose to democracy in the region – as a justification for deposing him, whether by legal or illegal means.
"Look, a rule of thumb here is whenever you find yourself on the side of Hugo Chavez, [Nicaraguan president] Daniel Ortega, and the Castro twins [Raul and Fidel Castro of Cuba], you ought to reexamine your assumptions," Krauthammer noted.
Others depicted Zelaya as one more pawn in Chavez’s efforts to expand his influence, in much the same way that Kirkpatrick described Ortega and the Sandinistas as puppets of Moscow and Havana 30 years ago.
Kirkpatrick criticised Carter for allegedly taking a harder line against right-wing but pro-U.S.-backed dictators than against their left-wing, Soviet-backed counterparts. As brutal as they may be, she argued, "traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies" and, generally, "more compatible with U.S. interests".
In an echo of the late ambassador’s criticism of Carter’s human rights policy, former Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner complained about Obama’s alleged double standard in, on the one hand, denouncing the coup in Honduras while, on the other, allegedly failing to criticise election fraud in Iran strongly enough.
"[T]here doesn’t seem to be any consistency on when Obama decides to meddle, beyond his tendency to take actions that make life easier for those who do not wish America well," Wehner, who now heads the neo-conservative Ethics and Public Policy Centre, wrote on the website of Commentary.
"As a general matter, I’m not in favor of military coups," he added, in another echo of decades-old rhetoric. "On the other hand, I’m not in favor of Zelaya doing to Honduras what Chavez has done in Venezuela."
Although the Reagan administration was fiercely criticised by human rights advocates for its support of military dictators against leftist movements that frequently enjoyed widespread popular support, neo-conservatives argued that the larger threat to freedom posed by Soviet influence outweighed any injustice involved in suppressing opposition to "friendly authoritarians", as they were sometimes called.
If this argument seems jarring, it is likely because the popular image of neo-conservative doctrine has undergone a marked change in recent years. This was in large part because of their own efforts to depict themselves as "idealists" dedicated to universal democratisation, as laid out in Bush’s 2005 second inaugural address and his so-called "freedom agenda".
On closer examination, however, their zeal for democratisation appears to depend significantly on whether the target is considered friendly or hostile to U.S. interests. In that respect, not much has changed.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.