Niger, Honduras, and the Wrong Side of History

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"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history." - U.S. President Barack Obama, Jan. 21 2009.

Well, some of you. History's dividing lines have become awfully blurred of late.

These are uncertain times for would-be dictators working to extend their reigns indefinitely. The dogged, dependable "freedom agenda" espoused by the Bush administration is gone, and has been replaced by a murky double standard which censures some tyrants-on-the-make while embracing others.

Consider the political crises in Honduras and Niger. (1) Honduras' elected president, Mel Zelaya, wished to rule beyond the limits of his constitutionally-mandated term, due to end in January. Niger's elected president, Mamadou Tandja, was also reluctant to leave when his legal term comes up in December. (2) Both countries have recent histories of military-backed coups and dictatorships, so both their constitutions provide rigid term limits and - particularly in Honduras' case - stern sanctions on rulers seeking to lift them. (3) Mr. Zelaya called for a referendum to rewrite Honduras' constitution; Mr. Tandja called for a referendum to rewrite Niger's constitution. (4) Honduras' and Niger's highest courts each ruled their respective presidents' actions illegal.

Here is where the fragile democracies' paths diverge. Late last month, Mr. Zelaya and a Caracas-backed mob stormed a military complex to seize Venezuelan-printed ballots and proceed with their illegal poll. Acting on the high court's ruling, Honduras' attorney general ordered the military to arrest Mr. Zelaya for treason, abuse of power, and usurpation, as defined by the Honduran Constitution. Mr. Zelaya remains in exile in Costa Rica, despite all outside efforts to have him restored to office.

In Niger that same week in June, Mr. Tandja decided not to wait for his country's high court to order his ousting, but instead launched a pre-emptive strike against democracy by dissolving said court. He remains in office, and prepares for his unconstitutional referendum on August 4.

In short, democracy's infrastructure - tested almost identically in Honduras and Niger - is triumphing in the former nation and being defeated in the latter.

Fascinating as these twin sagas are in their own rights, the most gripping development in both has been the contradictory responses they've elicited from the Obama administration.

Immediately following Mr. Zelaya's court-ordered and constitutionally-prescribed expulsion from office, Mr. Obama denounced the "coup" as "illegal" and a potentially "terrible precedent." More than a week later, Mr. Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton again accused the Honduran military of having staged a "coup," and called to "restore full democratic and constitutional order in that country." Washington has also suspended some aid to Honduras.

The U.S. has since refused to recognize the interim administration of Roberto Micheletti, who was installed with exacting deference to Honduras'constitution following Mr. Zelaya's arrest. Washington's assaults on Honduras' democratic institutions have led rising pressure worldwide to reinstate Mr. Zelaya. All 27 European Union nations have yanked their ambassadors from Tegucigalpa.

And in Niger? While Mr. Obama has taken no real steps to stop Mr. Tandja's creeping overthrow, the State Department nonetheless expressed its "concern about Niger's democratic processes" in late May, when Mr. Tandja dissolved his parliament.

The statement, delivered by department spokesman Ian Kelly, went on to note that Mr. Tandja's push to prolong his presidency "risks undercutting Niger's hard won social, political, and economic gains of the past decade, and would be a set-back for democracy, based on the regular, peaceful transition of political power and faithful adherence to constitutional due-process."

Excellent points all - and seemingly applicable, word for word, to Mr.
Zelaya's own attempted coup.

As in Honduras, Washington's reaction set the tone for the E.U., which has rightly frozen some aid to Niger in light of Mr. Tandja's ominous shenanigans.

So, while democracy's assailant is chided and punished in Niger, so too are its guardians in Honduras.

The question this leaves in the minds of alert spectators and, more importantly, any world leaders wishing to follow in Mr. Zelaya's and Mr. Tandja's footsteps, is simple: What's the difference?

Manumission and the rule of law have been threatened quite equally by both Mr. Zelaya and Mr. Tandja, so clearly these are not the factors determining the Obama administration's responses.

Put yourself in the shoes of, say, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippines' president whose term is set to expire next year and who is now apparently trying to overhaul her own country's charter so she too may remain in government. Given the unraveling melodramas in Niger and Honduras, and Washington's contradictory responses when faced with incipient dictators, Ms. Arroyo must be wondering ahead of her July 30 audience with Mr. Obama just how Mr. Zelaya succeeded, and where Mr. Tandja failed, in winning the American president's fickle favor.

She might observe that Mr. Zelaya has fashioned himself a comrade in Latin America's new left, having aligned himself firmly with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and paraded as a champion of the supposed proletariat. On other hand, Mr. Tandja's power-grab has been largely unaccompanied by such ideological adornments, so Ms. Arroyo might suppose that Mr. Obama's faux-egalitarian, corporatist push in his own country means he supports leaders with similar philosophies.

But this can't be right - for one thing, the shunned Mr. Micheletti hails from Mr. Zelaya's own Liberal party. More importantly, this left-right reasoning would ignore Mr. Obama's promise to eschew ideology in favor of "pragmatism."

"Pragmatism," in the hands of Mr. Obama, would appear to mean nothing more than a case-by-case series of equations, each with their own desired outcomes. There is no philosophical north, no magnet pointing right from wrong. There are only the calculations at hand, which in the case of Honduras equate to supporting Mr. Zelaya and his star-studded list of anti-American patrons on the continent, who Mr. Obama has made such a show of drawing ever closer.

By championing Mr. Zelaya, Mr. Obama at once sides with those he cynically predicts will be the winners in Latin America's ongoing struggle between liberty and tyranny, and makes good on his promises of rapprochement with those who wish America ill.

Unfortunately for Mr. Tandja, he seems to lack any such politically convivial backers. Certainly, he sits on one of the world's largest deposits of uranium, but Canada and Russia are currently America's largest suppliers - so why not throw Niger's people the bone of Mr. Kelly's now-six-week-old statement? Even worse for Mr. Tandja, his moves towards a presidential coup follow ten years of relatively warm relations with the U.S. and the international business community, so defending him offers Mr.Obama no opportunities to exhibit a Humbled, Changed America.

Mr. Tandja, therefore, is expendable.

As the effects of Washington's newfound "pragmatism" play out in Niger and Honduras - not to mention Iran, Georgia, Israel and elsewhere -- Ms. Arroyo and other aspiring over-reachers watch closely to decipher the precise formula for Mr. Obama's approval.

Yes, these are indeed uncertain times for those seeking unchecked power. Uncertain - but not without hope. For if Mr. Zelaya's skullduggery has proved anything, it is that with the right moves, rising despots too can land on the "right" side of Mr. Obama's History.

Anne Berg is a Brussels-based American journalist who covers Belgian and E.U. affairs. She can be reached at
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