The expulsion of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduras military has sparked a lively debate over whether or not the takeover should be called a "coup". The reason for the debate is simple enough -- "coup" conjures images of a military junta seizing power by extralegal force and repressing all opposition akin to Argentina in the early 1980s. Defenders of the Honduran military action point out that this action was not extralegal and was, in fact, authorized by the legislature and the courts in response to Zelaya's own illegal attempt to extend his power in an imitation of his international mentor, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Critics, however, believe that this is just a rhetorical shill to cover up some kind of bias against Zelaya's leftist politics.
What both sides miss is that a "coup" isn't always extralegal. In short, what is happening in Honduras may be an example of a coup that is not only legal, but mandatory. The oddness of this concept to American minds requires an explanation.
Civil-military relations in the United States are founded on assumptions both inside and outside the military that derive from the work of the late Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State. Under Huntington's ideal of "objective civilian control," the military is granted substantial autonomy over a professional sphere of managing the application of violence, but is given no political role. Various forms of "subjective civilian control" where the military becomes embroiled in civilian political struggles are argued by Huntington to be militarily deficient and presumed by most westerners to be morally deficient as well. Americans frequently assume that this ideal is universally shared as an intrinsic component of a democracy.
But this American presumption is more a pretension than an objective description of how societies organize themselves politically. While it is true that American and European consultants make a priority of encouraging developing democracies to adopt Huntingtonian ideals (NATO's "Partnership for Peace" is a notable example, as is the reformed curriculum of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly-known and still-protested as the "School of Americas"), some countries explicitly endow their military with a role in maintaining democratic governance. For example, in Turkey, the military is constitutionally empowered to act as a check on the potential for Islamic parties to undermine the secular foundations. In 1962 and 1980, the Turkish military undertook coups that were not only seen as legal, but mandatory and necessary. This military influence has continued to function in less aggressive forms during more recent political crises involving the banning of Islamic parties and the selection of the head-of-state.
Like the Turkish military, Latin American armies have a long tradition of political involvement. While in some cases, most notably Argentina, this tradition has been intentionally deconstructed (the disaster of the "dirty war" and defeat in the Falklands War provided a strong impetus for change), officers have continued to hold a widely-accepted political role in other countries. It is worth remembering, for example, that in spite of his pretensions of outrage over this coup in Honduras, Venezualan dictator Hugo Chavez was himself the leader of a coup attempt in 1992.
As more news continues to filter out of Honduras, it appears as if the Honduran military was specifically authorized by a court order to arrest a President that was judged to be out of control. The fact that the American military would never be so authorized should not distract us from the possibility that legal authorizations for military interventions into politics might exist in other countries' constitutional arrangements. The takeover in Honduras might be, in fact, a legal coup.
The author is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His dissertation forces on variations in the political and policy-making roles of the U.S. military.