When Honduran soldiers entered democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya's bedroom and packed him off in his pajamas at gunpoint to exile this summer, the politicians and industrialists who backed the ouster had confidence that President Obama wouldn't touch them.
Even though the United States maintains 600 troops in Honduras, they thought they could pull off the first successful military coup in Latin America since the end of the Cold War. So far, they're right: The Honduran junta's intransigence in negotiations to restore democracy has been rewarded with U.S. complacency, setting an extremely dangerous precedent for other areas of the world. Unexpectedly, in the age of Obama, democracy is in retreat.
In the wake of the coup, the United Nations and the Organization of American States passed rare unanimous resolutions with U.S. support calling for Zelaya's immediate, safe and unconditional restoration. Obama labeled the actions a "coup" and sponsored the valiant efforts of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias for a negotiated solution in which the coup leaders would gain amnesty in exchange for restoring Zelaya to office, albeit with limited powers.
But in response to the administration's extremely generous concessions, the coup leaders responded with vicious attacks. Instead of engaging in sincere negotiations, they are digging in for the long haul. They are threatening, for example, to offset the relatively weak economic sanctions and visa restrictions imposed on Hondurans by reversing the country's ban on environmentally disastrous open-pit mining.
Meanwhile, they've hired well-connected Democratic lobbyists, such as Clinton administration veteran Lanny Davis, to mount a PR campaign against the restoration of democracy. And Republican South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint has shamelessly supported their anti-democratic efforts -- defending the coup on the Senate floor.
Faced with this pressure, the administration seems to be drifting toward perilous inaction. The State Department recently issued a statement on Honduras that undermined the president's stated commitment to Zelaya and evoked the cynical formulations of past U.S. policy toward Latin America.
"Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual," State Department spokesman Richard Verma wrote in a letter to GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. "Rather, it is based on finding a resolution that best serves the Honduran people and their democratic aspirations."
Those are the Honduran people who, just a few weeks ago, had democracy, not democratic aspirations.
Continuing the slide toward accommodation of the Honduran junta would not only leave the country with an illegitimate and corrupt government, it would send a dangerous signal to other potential coup-makers around the world: Overthrow democracy with impunity.
This message will resonate even louder because the United States and our allies have been unable to stop other recent attacks on democracy. In Iran, we really were powerless to aid the democratic protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apparently stolen election. And when China launched violent attacks against the Uighur people of Xinjiang province, the administration didn't feel it could take real action without threatening our economic ties with China.
Honduras, in contrast, is a place where we can make a stand and do so with U.N. backing, at the invitation of the country's legitimately elected president and in a friendly country. Hondurans retain great affection and many ties to the U.S. Many remember the Clinton administration's substantial relief operation after Hurricane Mitch devastated the nation in 1998.
It's also likely other Latin American countries -- regardless of their ideological alignment -- would join an effort to isolate Honduras economically. Given the coup leaders' heavy dependence on their economic ties with the U.S., most observers agree military action wouldn't be necessary to restore democracy. Even in a worst-case scenario, the imminent threat of an internationally backed invasion would likely cause Honduras' illegitimate leaders to step down.
To abandon Honduran democracy and our own pledge to restore it is an abdication of leadership in the hemisphere -- and others will not hesitate to step into the vacuum.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has already threatened military intervention to restore democracy to Honduras. If the U.S. continues to sit on the sidelines, Chavez could cobble together a coalition to reinstall Zelaya and create an anti-American client state in Honduras that might serve as a political and economic beachhead for Chavez's Iranian, Chinese and Russian allies. Millions of people in Latin America would suddenly see Chavez, not the United States, as the guarantor of democracy and freedom -- and be willing to turn a blind eye to his abuses and his unsavory friends.
Obama needs to recognize that, in Honduras, democracy and his administration's credibility are on the line. By making a stand there, the president can ensure that greater threats to democracy and American security never develop at all.