Dealing with the first Latin American crisis of his presidency, US President Barack Obama sought a swift, clear response that would not be interpreted as US interventionism in a region that loathes it.
So he condemned a coup in Honduras by turning to the most reliable of friends: democracy.
“We stand on the side of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination,” Obama said when asked on Monday about the forced exile of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, a takeover that has drawn international criticism and unnerved a part of the world that has worked to shed itself of strong-arm tactics.
The point could not be lost. Obama mentioned some version of the word democracy eight times. He even wound up referring to George Washington.
The response put Obama with much of the world as Honduras and its newly appointed leader, Roberto Micheletti, quickly found themselves isolated. Obama left sticky underlying issues in Honduras for its people to decide, but pledged that the US would work with international bodies on a peaceful solution.
All that was clear. What comes next is cloudy.
Micheletti and the Congress that put him in place stood by their move after soldiers stormed the national palace and forced Zelaya into exile. The ousted leader retained his own claim and planned an address to the UN General Assembly. Police and soldiers clashed with protesters in the Honduran capital.
Obama, wielding clout within the Americas as a popular voice of a powerful country, has outlined his approach.
He will work within existing groups, particularly the Organization of American States, which links the countries of the Western Hemisphere, and not try to dictate a solo US response.
This is what he promised during a summit in Latin America just two months ago: The US is an equal partner, not a senior partner, in the region.
But politically, a hostile removal of a democratically elected president demands a response from a US president. So Obama, who was criticized by Republican critics for being too slow to react to Iran’s post-election upheaval, quickly expressed concern on the day that Zelaya was booted from his country.
Then, in plain terms, Obama elaborated on Monday after a meeting with a US ally in the region, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
“We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras,” Obama said.
“It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections,” Obama said. “The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”
Speaking of the past, Obama said that the US has “not always stood as it should” with democracies in the region.
That, too, seemed to draw back on the doctrine he promised to the region while in Trinidad in April, a view that the US strengthens its hand by confessing when it has strayed from its own values.
As Obama has with Iran — a deadly conflict of greater proportions on the world stage — he has kept an emphasis on the rights of the people.
“I think what’s ultimately most important is that the people feel a sense of legitimacy and ownership, and that this is not something imposed on them from the top,” Obama said.