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Honduras Holds Up State Department Nominations, as the U.S. Signals Policy Shift

August 7, 2009

by Liz Harper

Summer is sticky but not so sweet here in the nation’s capital, as Honduras is yet again butting into U.S. politics and policymaking.

Even as Congress readies to run out of town, it never came around to confirming what really are no-brainers: nominees Arturo Valenzuela as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere and Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil! Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation as the newest Supreme Court Justice would ideally open the gates to more confirmations but the possibilities look bleak that these two positions will be filled anytime soon.

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Instead, certain Republican Senators—led by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC)—are determined to voice their dissatisfaction to the Obama administration over its Honduras policy. DeMint asked Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry to hold over the nominations of Valenzuela and Shannon, which he did. And when the committee approved their nominations and their nominations went to the floor in late July, DeMint’s office told me their nominations would again be held over.

Why? To again express dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of Honduras.

“President Obama rushed to side with [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez and [Cuban leader Raúl] Castro before getting the facts,” DeMint had said at the July confirmation hearing. “Now it’s clear that the people of Honduras were defending the rule of law, yet this administration still supports Zelaya’s efforts to become a dictator and return to power.”

After my post appeared here on the confirmation hearing, a senior Republican aide wanted to clarify with me that there was no partisan solidarity behind DeMint’s position.

Rather, he said “we know a deal must be brokered, and that cooler heads must prevail. In order to curtail increased suffering and bloodshed, swift action toward a peaceful resolution is called for. Swift action will need to be coupled with more nuanced consideration of the political problems Honduras has and a focus on pragmatic solutions.”

This nuanced, pragmatic view appears to have registered with the administration, since the administration has been playing down its support for Honduran President-in-exile Manuel Zelaya. Well, that plus Zelaya’s goofy antics, which have nearly made a mockery of the administration’s determination to support the democratic process.

In recent weeks, the administration softened its calls for Zelaya’s return to Honduras, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called his traipsing over the Honduran border “reckless” and this week signaled that it will not impose economic sanctions on the impoverished country.

The administration’s decision on sanctions—and its acknowledgment that Zelaya had taken “provocative actions” that precipitated his early morning ouster—came via a letter from State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma to Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual,” in a reference to Zelaya.

We have rejected calls for crippling economic sanctions and made clear that all states should seek to facilitate a solution without calls for violence and with respect for the principle of nonintervention,” Verma wrote.

The letter even indicated that the administration still had not made a final decision whether the events constituted a military coup. (And, per a State Department briefing, there’s a legal distinction between a “coup” and a “military coup.”)

The language of the letter—and other recent statements and actions by the administration— suggest the Obama team is comfortable waiting out Honduras until its elections in November and that they won’t force the matter of Zelaya’s return to office.

As the media picked up the letter – and its significance as signaling a shift in policy -- the State Department on Thursday tiptoed, and then tripped over the sanctions matter.

When asked whether the U.S. indeed decided against imposing sanctions, Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood responded: “No decision has been made to do anything right now, other than support the San José Accords and the mediation process.

(In the letter dated August 4, an assistant secretary did write that the U.S. has so far rejected calls for sanctions...)

But, this softening of position isn’t good enough for some Republican senators, like Senator DeMint, who want the Obama administration to cease any support for Zelaya, or what I’d call supporting a democratic process.

While saying he was glad to see the State Department beginning to “walk back its support for Zelaya,” DeMint admonished President Obama to “end his support for Zelaya.”

The Honduran people are fighting to uphold their constitution, and they deserve America's full support in their defense of democracy. This administration should make it clear that we support the rule of law and Manuel Zelaya is not above it. He should be permitted to return to Honduras, but he shouldn't be illegitimately returned to power. He should face a fair trial under the laws and constitution of the Honduran people," said Senator DeMint.

Yet, the administration is demonstrating its actions are aimed at upholding democratic principles in the hemisphere—this isn’t about personalities (even as hard as Zelaya is making it for the administration, and even as concerning as Chávez’s grip on Zelaya is).

So, what’s the point of holding up the confirmation process? Seriously, what more does he expect to achieve with this strategy? Putting on ice Valenzuela’s nomination and by default, Shannon’s nomination, is not good for anyone, let alone U.S. policy making.

Those I talk to at the State Department are slightly frustrated that their work is backed up until the new guy officially takes over, but they also brush off this delay as just another example of Washington’s partisan bickering.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org

Tags: Honduras, Tom Shannon, Arturo Valenzuela, Jim DeMint, Mel Zelaya

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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