Egypt Policy – Latin America Style

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

We who follow U.S. policy in Latin America shouldn’t be surprised to see Washington’s policy toward Egypt drift from support for democracy to support for the status quo ante.  President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to Muslims – calling for an end to the “cycle of suspicion and discord” – came just six weeks after he told the Summit of the Americas that he wanted “an equal partnership” with the hemisphere and sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”  When 30-year President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, the Administration eagerly linked Egypt to the “Arab Spring” and, despite concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, tried to make the relationship with Mohamad Morsi work.  Over time, however, Morsi – successor to an undemocratic regime in an undemocratic country with no democratic traditions and no democratic institutions – was accused of being undemocratic.  The estrangement grew so deep that the Obama Administration still cannot bring itself to call the July 3 coup against Morsi a coup, and Secretary of State Kerry saw fit to refer to the military takeover as “restoring democracy” even as the Army was firing on unarmed crowds.

To Latin America watchers, this chronology is reminiscent of U.S. policy in our own hemisphere.  The case of Honduran President Mel Zelaya is clearest.  The Honduran military removed Zelaya– in his pajamas – from his home and country in June 2009 for proposing a referendum that, the putschists claimed, violated the Honduran constitution.  The Obama Administration’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Arturo Valenzuela, testified that the action was, in his opinion, a coup, but the State Department never categorized it as such and, despite rhetoric committing to restore Zelaya, the Administration let the interim regime consolidate power.  Amidst a state of emergency, media closures, and other irregularities, the State Department also gave its blessing to elections held several months later.  Zelaya’s rhetoric before the coup was caustic, and he squandered political capital in needless confrontations, but he never threatened Honduran “democracy” or violated human rights as the interim regime did.  Nor did he preside over a steady deterioration of security, civil rights, and the economy as the current government has.  Yet, ironically, the Obama Administration has never set the history of the coup straight – just as the Bush Administration never rectified its disastrous support for the 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela.

The excesses of some leaders, like Zelaya and Chávez, make supporting or turning a blind eye to a coup very tempting.  But Washington has also shelved its moral outrage when much less provocative presidents – democratically elected but progressive-leaning – have been removed from power, if not with a gun at their head.  The “constitutional coup” against President Lugo in Paraguay last year is the most recent example.  The gap between U.S. rhetoric about democracy, rule of law, and due process on the one hand and its tangible actions on the other has a number of causes. 

  • American “exceptionalism” – the sense that U.S. success gives it a right to judge others and intervene even when national interests are not at stake – sometimes leads Washington to over-extend and make rash decisions.
  • Eagerness to act quickly – to appear decisive – often makes policymakers confuse the symptoms of problems, which seem amenable to quick solutions, and the essence of the problems themselves.  Policies address the short-term while neglecting the strategic.
  • Washington lobbies – the pro-Israel lobby in the case of any matter in the Middle East and the Cuban-American lobby in Latin America – are able to dominate U.S. perceptions of events, pushing administrations into a corner. 
  • Administrations embarrass themselves when they throw around words like “Arab Spring” and “democracy.”  When the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they act betrayed rather than admit they got carried away by wishful thinking. 
  • Double-standards –the expectation that progressives succeeding authoritarians will be perfectly democratic and flawlessly inclusive – make it difficult for Washington to avoid prematurely throwing a potential ally overboard. 
  • Another factor, and potentially the most important, is that the U.S. government builds deeper relationships with elites and the security services that do their bidding than with any other forces.  During the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” the U.S. Government entrusted Egypt with extremely sensitive operations, including the interrogation (and alleged torture) of suspected terrorists, and Washington relies on Latin American security services to prosecute the “war on drugs.” 

When U.S. interagency committees discuss how to respond to crises, the departments and agencies with the deepest ties in the country under discussion claim more influence over events there than anyone else – and win most policy debates.  The problem is that their ties are mostly to political and economic elites – or the military and intelligence services that back them – which are rarely agents of change.  Washington winds up allied with forces that suppress the new voices essential for the “springs” and “democracies” that it says it wants.



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1 Comment

  1. Seth Wyngowski

     /  September 7, 2013

    Mr. Armstrong – This is an interesting comparison, and certainly a topic that deserves attention. However, I disagree with part of your characterization of the coup in Honduras and the United States’ response. There is no debate that the action taken to remove Zelaya in 2009 was, by definition, a coup. Note that the nations of the Americas, including the United States, adopted a resolution affirming this when suspending Honduras from the OAS following the crisis. It is also clear that Zelaya’s actions prior to the coup were unconstitutional, whether you agree with them or not. He was not proposing a referendum, but rather an opinion poll on whether or not to include another ballot box in upcoming elections for a referendum on convoking a constituent assembly. The way the Honduran Constitution was, the National Electoral Tribunal was the only entity allowed to carry out such a poll, and another ballot box could only be added with the approval of the legislature. The Supreme Court ruled the poll unconstitutional for these reasons. Zelaya pushed forward in defiance of two checks on his power, the legislature and judiciary, overestimating his support among the armed forces, which eventually executed the coup against him. This is hardly the profile of a democratic leader. You don’t change rigid institutions by ignoring them or trying to mold them overwhelmingly in your favor.
    One of the major problems in the Americas, which has received much attention as of late, is leaders who take actions that degrade democratic institutions in order to serve their own agenda and perpetuate themselves in power. Regardless of whether or not the leaders are democratically elected, these actions are detrimental to democracy in these countries. This is not to justify military action to remove a democratically elected leader, for certainly the subsequent instability and insecurity in Honduras (not to mention the human rights situation) let us know that the country is no better off now than it was in 2009. No one disputed the fact that Honduras was in need of constitutional reform, and most within the country were in favor of this at the time. What they disagreed with, however, was the timing. Zelaya’s radical swing to the left, reliance on the armed forces as a source of his legitimacy rather than democratic institutions, and disregard for checks on his executive power contributed toward transforming a deteriorating political-economic situation into a full-blown crisis. We should remember that Zelaya ordered the military to carry out an unconstitutional poll, sparking mass officer resignations when he began to fire those who would not comply with his orders. There is little evidence that frames Zelaya as a victim to conspirators and coup-mongerers, and he clearly demonstrated he was willing to use undemocratic means to achieve goals for his agenda.
    The Zelaya presidency failed to address Honduras’ pressing economic and security problems. In the lame duck phase of his presidency, he took drastic, unconstitutional (by definition) action in order to further his agenda by attempting to back these actions with military force. Should the United States have done more to isolate Honduras and demand Zelaya’s return to power so he could continue promoting a failed development model and political agenda? I would say that accepting the election results was the best decision at the time, particularly given failed negotiation efforts made more difficult by the unyielding policy positions of certain countries in the hemisphere.
    -Seth Wyngowski (SIS ’12)


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