The “rule of law” is, when you stop to think about it, one of the most lofty, powerful concepts we have. Particularly in America, it embodies a meaning which goes beyond the generalized legal maxim that all decisions should be made by applying and respecting known, accepted principles from your body of laws. It’s really something more than that. It’s the idea that the body of laws itself is the final arbiter – that no person or group of people is equal to or above those laws and the concepts they embody.
With that in mind, particularly given the recent events in Honduras and Hillary Clinton’s upcoming meeting with their ousted president, I’ve found myself puzzled by some of the recent criticism of President Obama’s response to the situation, such at that found in my friend Ed Morrissey’s recent piece, Why is Obama administration supporting Zelaya instead of rule of law?
Why, then, has Obama blindly followed Chavez’ lead in Honduras? The removal of Manuel Zelaya got botched, but it didn’t result in a military junta replacing him. The Honduran legislature remains in place, as does its courts, both of which unanimously issued the arrest warrant that the military executed. While there is a legitimate criticism about Honduran due process in this case, that’s not Chavez’ interest. He just wants his leftist ally put back in charge so Zelaya can continue to dismantle the constitutional form of government in Honduras just as Chavez has done in Venezuela.
First, in the Credit Where Credit is Due department, let’s credit Ed for noting that the “removal” was “botched” and there are questions about “Honduran due process.” But I think those passing nods give short shrift to what may be the larger question here. Going back to the title of Ed’s article, where does the allegiance of the American president really belong? To Zelaya? To Roberto Micheletti? Or does he actually need to be paying heed to something higher? Yes, I’m sure it’s great fun to portray Obama as kowtowing to Hugo Chavez or bowing to leftist dictators if you’re only interested in finding more stones to hurl at this administration, but might he actually be doing the correct thing here?
I am, by no means, an authority on the Honduran constitution. Adopted in 1982, it has a preamble, 379 lengthy articles and 18 sizable amendments. It would be a vocational study to become an expert on it. But I am able to seek out others who have done the work for us, such as the analysis Tim Merrill supplies for us in the Library of Congress.
Their constitution and government are hardly a mirror image of ours, but enough similarities exist that most of you would recognize it. They have executive (president), legislative (known as the National Congress) and judicial (the Supreme Court of Justice) branches just like us. It differs quite a bit because the majority of legislation originates from the executive, fed to the legislative by deputies to the president, for consideration and action, though the legislature can introduce their own as well. The legislature has another power which many of you might recognize:
In addition to its legislative activities, the National Congress also has other extensive powers, particularly regarding other branches of the government and other institutions of the Honduran state…
The National Congress may declare that there are grounds for impeachment of certain high-ranking government officials, including the president and presidential designates, Supreme Court justices, cabinet ministers and deputy secretaries, and the commander in chief of the armed forces.
The Hondurans have a method for removing presidents, and it’s pretty much the same as ours. I’ve gone through Dr. Merrill’s summary of the powers of both the National Congress and their high courts, and nowhere does it mention the phrase “send the military to arrest the president and send him to Costa Rica.” If there is a newer version of the document or a better translation where that phrase, or something akin to it is included, please let me know and I’ll certainly stand down from this.
Failing that, however, I ask you to consider the following scenario for a moment. It’s early 2010 and President Obama’s economic policies and health care reform plans have sent the economy into a death spiral. Not only has his national popularity plummeted, but he’s lost the support of much of his own party in Congress. On April 15th, shortly after the 30th straight weekend of tea parties on the National Mall, Congress issues a strongly worded rebuke (but does not a call for impeachment) of Obama and his policies. The Supreme Court orders the Joint Chiefs to arrest Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts swears in Mitch McConnell as president.
Would anyone – even Obama’s most vocal critics among the Republicans – support that? Would it not, in effect, be the end of America? So what just happened in Honduras? Frankly, I don’t want the United States pushing their nose in to help decide who their president should be. That’s the business of the Hondurans, just as with the situation in Iran. But, of course, if Obama says nothing, he will be pilloried for that anyway.
So who or what should Obama support? It seems to me that he’s calling for Zelaya to be returned to his home country. Once there, the National Congress could readily impeach and remove him, given the broad base of support they seem to enjoy in that goal. But for our president to give a nod to the current situation, is he not saying that their constitution is really nothing more than 1,300 pages of toilet paper and the nation is, in reality, nothing more than a banana republic?
Yes, Obama most certainly should be supporting the rule of law in Honduras. And by calling for Zelaya’s return to office, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
UPDATE: See this article from ABC on Obama’s recent comments on the situation.
“America supports now the restoration of the democratically-elected President of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies,” the president told graduate students at the commencement ceremony of Moscow’s New Economic School. “We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not. “
Exactly. The article also gives a brief thumbnail of the history leading up to this for those who haven’t been following the story. Here’s a key section:
After the Honduran Legislature refused to call a constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution, Zelaya called for a referendum to do so, which the Honduran Supreme Court and Attorney General declared unconstitutional. Zelaya, allied with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez , fired top military commander Romeo Vásquez Velásquez for refusing to carry out the referendum. Every branch of government sided against Zelaya and Congress began discussing impeachment proceedings. Acting on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, soldiers arrested Zelaya on June 28 and sent him into exile in Costa Rica.
Emphasis mine. Did you catch the key part there? They began considering impeachment hearings. All they had to do was finish, as I mentioned in comments this morning. Apparently the president had no support for his nefarious plans. He lacks popular support from the people, the other two branches of the government don’t support his ambitions and the military will not bow to his will. He has no bullets in his gun. So the option was there for Honduras to follow the rule of law and remove him in the normal order of things or simply allow the next election to happen at which point he is gone anyway. Instead, they chose to have a coup. You can go on all the live long day about what a horrible man he is, but those points are simply not germane to the discussion. You can be a constitutional democratic republic and respect the rule of law and your own constitution, or you can choose to act like a banana republic and stage a coup. Honduras chose the latter.
More commentary from both sides can be found at Memeorandum.