Powerful special interests have flexed their muscles and confronted President Obama on the most important legislative priorities of his domestic agenda. But this kind of politics-by-influence-peddling doesn't stop at the water's edge. And in foreign policy, the consequences can be more immediate, violent and deadly.
Meet Lanny Davis, Washington lawyer and lobbyist, former legal counsel to President Clinton and avid campaigner for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid. He has been hired by a coalition of Latin American business interests to represent the dictatorship that ousted elected President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras in a military coup and removed him to Costa Rica on June 28.
Davis is working with Bennett Ratcliff, another lobbyist with a close relationship to Hillary Clinton who is a former senior executive for one of the most influential political and public relations firms in Washington. In the current mediation effort hosted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the coup-installed government did not make a move without first consulting Ratcliff, an unnamed source told the New York Times.
Davis and Ratcliff have done an amazing public relations job so far. Americans, relying on media reports, are likely to believe that Zelaya was ousted because he tried to use a referendum to extend his term of office. This is false.
Zelaya's referendum, planned for the day the coup took place, was a nonbinding poll. It only asked voters if they wanted to have an actual referendum on reforming the country's Constitution on the November ballot. Even if Zelaya had gotten everything he was looking for, a new president would have been elected on the same November ballot. So Zelaya would be out of office in January, no matter what steps were taken toward constitutional reform. Further, Zelaya has repeatedly said that if the Constitution were changed, he would not seek another term.
If we add together the high-powered lobbyists from the Clinton camp, Republican members of Congress and conservatives within the State Department, the coup government has a lot of support from Washington.
So it's up to Obama to do the right thing. He can have the U.S. Treasury freeze the coup leaders' personal bank accounts and the assets of the coup leaders and their supporters, and deny them visas to the U.S. He could also impose trade sanctions -- 70% of Honduran exports go to the United States. He would have worldwide support for such steps: Both the Organization of American States and the U.N. General Assembly have voted unanimously to demand the immediate and unconditional reinstatement of Zelaya.
Almost all of the Latin American governments -- which are mostly left of center -- also sympathize with Zelaya because he is a reform president fighting against a corrupt oligarchy. In one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, he raised the minimum wage by 60% and increased teachers' salaries and public pensions, as well as access to education.
What happened in Honduras is a classic Latin American coup in another sense: Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who led it, is an alumnus of the United States' School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). The school is best known for producing Latin American officers who have committed major human rights abuses, including military coups.
The military has shot at peaceful demonstrators, killing one, according to human rights groups, and the coup government has closed TV and radio stations and arrested journalists. Two political activists have been murdered.
During the 1980s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency trained a military death squad -- the infamous Battalion 316 -- that tortured and murdered hundreds of Honduran political activists. The U.S. Embassy looked the other way, and the State Department doctored its human rights reports to omit these crimes.
Obama has so far been silent about the coup government's violence and censorship. This silence is very unfortunate and difficult to explain. The repression may worsen if -- as expected -- the Arias mediation efforts fail and Zelaya makes good on his vow to return to Honduras.
Obama needs to show that the U.S. will not follow policies of the past by supporting Zelaya's return with action, not just words. Anything less will look like complicity in the eyes of the world, especially given the coup government's friends in high places.