Tegucigalpa, June 28, 2009. Honduran Army troops seized elected president Manuel Zelaya and flew him into exile in Costa Rica. A provisional government was set up to arrange new elections. The United States expressed concern at the apparent break in constitutional order, called for new elections to occur promptly, but refused to characterize the military takeover as a coup d’etat, and refused to call for Zelaya’s reinstatement.
Cairo, July 3, 2013. Egyptial Army troops seized elected president Mohammed Morsi and detained him in an undisclosed location. A provisional government was set up to arrange new elections. The United States expressed concern at the apparent break in constitutional order, called for new elections to occur promptly, but refused to characterize the military takeover as a coup d’etat, and refused to call for Morsi’s reinstatement.
Two incidents, one midway through Obama’s first year, the second at about the same time in his fifth, show a pattern that sets Obama’s presidency apart from most of his predecessors. He pursues a foreign policy that is in line with a bipartisan tradition going back at least to the end of the Cold War: the principle is that the United States is the only remaining superpower, and needs to act accordingly to shape the world in its interests. What is distinctive is that Obama doesn’t seem to want to look that way.
The two cases are disparate in their details. Zelaya was an opportunistic politician, elected as a right-of-center politician, who swung sharply to the left after his election, associating himself with such hemispheric bad boys as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. His criticism of the United States (coming from a small Central American country that is the quintessence of a banana republic) incensed many right-wingers in the US, but the Obama administration reacted with forbearance—on the surface. Whether there was any covert US involvement in the coup remains unknown, but it strains credulity that the Honduran Army would have taken such an action without clearing it with Washington.
Morsi was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who won a substantial victory in Egypt’s first free elections in 2012, after popular protests and a military coup brought an end to the long reign of Hosni Mubarak. Not at all leftist, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood represent a highly popular, non-terrorist version of Islamism which is nonetheless deeply critical of the US and the West, seeing them as undermining the integrity of Islamic societies in the Arab World. The US has long had a troubled relationshjp with Islamism, but made some effort to establish a working relationship with Morsi. Still, the US has historically had a very strong relationship with the Egyptian military, and worked collaboratively with the successive secular dictatorships of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Whether the US had any covert involvement in the coup remains unknown, but again, it seems unlikely that the Egyptian Army would have made such a move without checking with Washington.
Any president, regardless of party, from Bush I through Bush II, and including Clinton, would probably have wanted the same outcome in both these cases. But any of Obama’s predecessors would have taken some credit. Obama, it seems, wants the same results, but doesn’t want to appear to want them. He doesn’t want people to know that he’s pulling the strings.
This reluctance to take credit—or bear blame—may also help to explain a few other recent issues. For example, Obama, far more than Bush, has opted for drone strikes on suspected terrorists, as opposed to putting troops on the ground. Drone strikes are not normally acknowledged, so that the US can maintain the useful fiction that someone else blew up that wedding party. Troops on the ground, even elite special forces, cannot so easily be disavowed.
Obama’s administration has been more aggressive then even Bush II in tracking down and punishing leakers (as well as intimidating news media): witness the intense effort to prevent Edward Snowden from getting political asylum, including orchestrating the diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, on the mistaken suspicion that Snowden might be aboard. Again, no one actually admitted that the US had asked for the plane to be grounded. But what other explanation is there? It seems that Obama wants to collect intelligence just as badly as Bush ever did, but he doesn’t want us to know.
Why doesn’t he want us to know about these things? I have no idea. Ask his shrink.
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