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The State Department’s zig-zag diplomacy on Honduras

The State Department is cautiously endorsing the victory of Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo in Sunday’s Honduran elections, while still acknowledging there is a long way to go before Hondurans might find their way out of the coup-related political crisis there. Lobo is widely reported to have handily won on behalf of the National Party over Elvin ...

The State Department is cautiously endorsing the victory of Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo in Sunday's Honduran elections, while still acknowledging there is a long way to go before Hondurans might find their way out of the coup-related political crisis there.

Lobo is widely reported to have handily won on behalf of the National Party over Elvin Santos. But the circumstances surrounding the election, including allegations of widespread abuse and intimidation by the de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti, have jeopardized the international community's recognition of the results. Supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya called for a boycott of the polls.

But today, the State Department's top official for the Americas tossed aside those concerns.

The State Department is cautiously endorsing the victory of Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo in Sunday’s Honduran elections, while still acknowledging there is a long way to go before Hondurans might find their way out of the coup-related political crisis there.

Lobo is widely reported to have handily won on behalf of the National Party over Elvin Santos. But the circumstances surrounding the election, including allegations of widespread abuse and intimidation by the de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti, have jeopardized the international community’s recognition of the results. Supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya called for a boycott of the polls.

But today, the State Department’s top official for the Americas tossed aside those concerns.

"I would like to commend the Honduran people for an election that met international standards of fairness and transparency despite some incidents that were reported here and there," Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela said Monday.

He commended Lobo for his victory while calling on him to form a unity government and establish a truth commission to establish how the long crisis there unfolded. Valenzuela called on the Honduran Congress to go through with its planned Dec. 2 vote on whether to restore Zelaya to power until Lobo takes over on Jan. 27, even though Zelaya said he wasn’t interested and refused to recognize the election.

The State Department has been slowly but steadily shifting its messaging on Honduras since Zelaya was run out of the country in June. At first, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton firmly sided with Zelaya, saying on the day of the coup, "The action taken against Honduran President Mel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and thus should be condemned by all."

She took measures to isolate the Micheletti regime, including terminating U.S. aid to Honduras, cutting all State Department ties to the group and revoking their visas.

In late July, however, Clinton called Zelaya’s attempts to return to Honduras "reckless" and implored him to go along with the diplomatic process organized under the banner of the Organization of American States (OAS) and run by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

But while criticizing Zelaya’s tactics, in August she made clear that the U.S. position was still to support Zelaya’s return to power at the earliest opportunity. Even in September, when Zelaya snuck over the border and took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Clinton stood by him.

"I think it’s important that the United States do everything we can to prevent either the hijacking of democracy by people who get elected once and then decide there never should be a real election again, or by the return to military coups, where people are elected and even if you disagree with them, they should finish out their term in an orderly way," she said.

But soon after that, a group of congressional Republicans led by Senator Jim DeMint, R-SC, went to Tegucigalpa and met with Micheletti over the State Department’s strong objections.

DeMint was defending U.S. business interests in Honduras and using his power as a senator to hold up the nominations of Thomas Shannon to become ambassador to Brazil and Valenzuela to become assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Prodded by the GOP and growing increasingly aware of the changing facts on the ground, by late October the State Department was quietly engaging the Micheletti team. Meanwhile, Zelaya was coming unhinged, making increasingly bizarre accusations about conspiracies surrounding his situation.

DeMint released his hold on Valenzuela after receiving assurances that the State Department would recognize the elections. The deal between Micheletti and Zelaya over the latter’s status was never really finalized, but the State Department decided to support the elections process anyway, widening the rift with Zelaya.

Since then, State Department officials have been meeting with both sides regularly and the State Department position has been that Zelaya ought to be returned to power only if the Honduran Congress votes that way on Dec. 2.

Valenzuela wouldn’t speculate what the U.S. would do or say if the Dec. 2 congressional vote in Honduras doesn’t happen, if the OAS never recognizes the new government, or if Zelaya ultimately refuses to play along — all of which are very real possibilities.

But he did give a clear answer when asked why the Obama administration is supporting a process in Honduras so rife with problems and so different from the State Department policy announced when the crisis began.

"Because there has to be an end game for Honduras," he said. "There has to be an exit."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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