And the United States shouldn't squander it.
- By Otto J. ReichOtto J. Reich has served three U.S. presidents as, among other positions, ambassador to Venezuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and senior staff member of the National Security Council.
For a successful foreign policy, it is not just essential that a nation have clear objectives, but that it can differentiate between crisis and opportunity and manage both. That ability seems to be absent so far in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, at least regarding its policies toward Latin America. This is particularly obvious when Obama’s foreign policy is contrasted with his predecessor Ronald Reagan’s. A brief review of the U.S. interventions in Grenada in 1983 and in Honduras in 2009 illustrates the point.
The U.S. actions in Grenada and Honduras are separated by a quarter century and 1,500 miles; they have shared and contrasting characteristics. The United States did not initiate the events that led to the Grenada invasion in 1983, as it did not instigate the removal of the President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras in 2009. In the former, a U.S. president utilized a real crisis to liberate a country and to signal to the world that he would fight for freedom elsewhere. In the latter, another administration demonstrated that it cannot differentiate between the friends and the enemies of freedom.
Twenty-six years ago this week, on October 25, 1983, Reagan made the dangerous and at the time loudly criticized decision to invade Grenada. This marked the first contraction of the Soviet empire in more than 50 years, and helped spur the fall of the Berlin Wall six years later and the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War two years after that. Seldom in history has such enormous consequence resulted from an unacknowledged event.
Grenada was the high-water mark of the Soviet empire’s expansion. In 1979, during the irresolute presidency of Jimmy Carter, Grenada fell into the hands of Maurice Bishop, a Marxist "revolutionary" who — supported by Fidel Castro, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Libya, and other enemies of the United States — imposed a dictatorial regime and turned the country into a base for communist expansion in the Caribbean.
Among other hostile moves, Bishop allowed Cuba to build an airbase large enough to accommodate Mig fighters and other military planes. Moreover, Bishop and his allies transformed Grenada into a base for political subversion of the Caribbean. When rival Marxist revolutionaries assassinated Bishop in 1983, the island descended into fratricidal violence. The lives of 800 foreign medical students, mostly American, were in danger. Against the wishes of some of his advisors, who preferred diplomacy, Reagan decided in 36 hours to invade and to remove the Marxist regime.
The invasion was deeply unpopular in the "international community," which denounced the move in a United Nations vote, 122 to 9. Only some neighboring nations in the Caribbean basin supported the United States. Even Reagan’s closest ally, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, bitterly protested. Uniformly, U.S. and European media lambasted the White House. Many in Congress angrily condemned the invasion at first, only to support it later (it could be said they were against it before they were for it) when evidence of communist deceit became overwhelming. For example, U.S. soldiers discovered ammunition caches in boxes labeled "Cuban Economic Office, Grenada," demonstrating the danger the island country posed.
With Grenada’s liberation, however, Reagan signaled that he was serious about combating Soviet aggression. Grenada was the first major use of U.S. military force since Vietnam; the first successful rollback of a communist state and thus the repudiation of the "Breshnev Doctrine," named after the former Soviet leader who held that no "socialist" state would be allowed to revert to capitalism; and the first military defeat of Castro’s army, which at the time was running amok in Africa and supporting terrorists in Latin America.
A quarter century later, in Honduras in 2009, a corrupt and demagogic president distanced his country from the United States and joined ALBA, the anti-American alliance created by Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. Zelaya attempted to subvert his country’s laws in order to stay in power. But the institutions of democracy foiled him: The Honduran Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Zelaya had violated the Constitution and ordered his arrest. The president of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, a member of Zelaya’s own party, replaced him, a move the elected legislature nearly unanimously ratified. All told, every institution of civil authority and civil society supported Zelaya’s legal removal. As with Grenada, the "international community" objected — in this case, on the grounds that the ouster was really a coup. Inexplicably, the United States joined along in the pro-Zelaya baying.
Simply put, Zelaya’s removal was not a crisis; it was an opportunity. Hondurans had simultaneously re-established the rule of law that Zelaya attempted to fracture and broke with the anti-U.S. Chávez and Castro alliance. This was a legal, autonomous, and liberating action by Honduras’s political institutions. The United States had no right to intervene against the pro-democracy Hondurans, even if a terrible mistake provided an excuse.
In the chaos caused by Zelaya’s arrest, some Army officers put him on an airplane out of the country. This was a violation of Honduran law; the Army has acknowledged it and has attempted to justify it by claiming that leaving Zelaya in the country would lead to violence. Zelaya’s many calls since his removal for his countrymen to replace him by force do justify the Army’s fears, if not the act of deportation itself. He should have been detained and made to answer to the many crimes with which he has been charged.
But the deportation of Zelaya is no excuse for the Obama administration to join with the hemisphere’s leftist despots, even with the cover of international organizations, in calling for the illegal restoration of the ousted leader. To repeat, Hondurans ousted Zelaya legally, in accordance with their constitution. The United States did not have to cut off aid and impose sanctions on one of the poorest nations in Latin America for having rid itself of an autocrat determined to turn Honduras into an undemocratic, hostile state.
Reagan was bold and agile enough to use the unexpected events on Grenada to change the course of history. Grenada was a crisis that Reagan turned into an opportunity. Honduras was an opportunity that Obama turned into a crisis. It is not too late to change course in Honduras and take advantage of an unexpected opportunity.