2009-07-17 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

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Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

The election of Barack Obama was greeted by many in this country as a paradigm-busting event. Even those of us who could not vote for him because of policy differences have cause to be pleased. Whatever you think of his politics, Obama is a leader with class, a guy whose words are balm to the ear and who knows how to dribble his way right down center court, despite the offensive guards rushing at him from the opposing side.

In the recent spat over what seems to have been serious electoral fraud in Iran, Obama struck a tone which managed to keep us on the side of the angels, at least in the eyes of most of our traditional critics. When the ruling Ayatollah and "Supreme Leader" Ali Khameini, and his "re-elected" flunkey Mahmoud Ahmadenjad, accused the U.S. of meddling in their affairs, few on the world stage seemed prepared to grant them much credence because the American president's words had been so measured and judicious. The poor Ayatollah was reduced to picking on a lesser "Satan", the Brits, when he could get no traction blaming us — outside of the rallying "Death to America" chants of the Faithful. Obama's smooth talking style effectively defanged the Iranian tiger that used to scratch so regularly and with such effect at our national door.

There's something to be said for a president like this, a guy with enough aplomb and panache to teflon-coat this country after all those long years of finding ourselves in the sights of third world crackpots and their enablers in Western Europe. Because he's perceived as being on the proper side of the pressing questions of the day (in sync, that is, with the left), because he has a "third world" mystique (a man of color with a Muslim middle name) and, finally, because of the mesmerizing power of his artfully cadenced baritone, rabble-rousing elements around the world and America-detesters everywhere are now having a tougher time than usual scoring points on us.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, having initially blamed the U.S. for the recent coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, when that leader tried to ram through a constitutional convention to re-write his nation's term limits clause so he can "run" for his office indefinitely, is now left looking rather foolish since the American president has come out against the coup. When Chavez' fellow countrymen tried a coup like this against him a few years back, the Bush administration did much the same thing because they were afraid of being tarred as meddlers — or worse. But they stuck by their word and saw Chavez reinstalled in the presidential palace in Caracas. Big mistake!

Chavez' return to power opened the gates for him to use the democratic institutions of his country to do away with any real semblance of democracy. He stacked his nation's courts with friendly judges, replaced the military leadership with his cronies, expropriated private property, shuttered the opposition press and hounded and arrested his political opponents. Of course he also re-did his nation's constitution to allow him to run for president indefinitely just as Zelaya has now tried, and so far failed, to do in Honduras. Had Zelaya succeeded in his putsch to call a constitutional convention, there's no reason to think he wouldn't have gone the rest of the way in his mentor Chavez' already welltrod footsteps.

But the Honduran Supreme Court ruled his proposed convention illegal because that country's constitution gives the legislature alone the power to call it. When Zelaya instructed the nation's military to implement the vote for the convention anyway, the Honduran justices overruled him on constitutional grounds. Pulling a rabbit from his Chavez hat, Zelaya promptly fired the army chief of staff, thereby setting his nation on course to a constitutional crisis. With the Honduran president lined up against that nation's congress, judiciary and military, a coup — or something worse — was all but inevitable.

The Obama administration, facing yet another test (where's Joe Biden when you need him?), must now carefully navigate these shoals, too, because we sure don't want another mini-Chavez south of the border. But neither can we be seen as interfering. On the other hand we dare not do what the Bush administration did in its rush to placate its critics by facilitating Chavez' return to power. Bush wanted consistency and he was supporting democracy around the world wasn't he? How could he call for democracy in Iraq but allow it to be flaunted so much closer to home?

Obama, though, appears to be cut from a different cloth. Always on his game, America's First Center on the international court of hoops knows when to take his best shot and when to play defense. Condemned for being slow out of the box on the Iranian electoral travesty, he still managed to keep the ayatollahs off-balance and looking weaker than they've ever looked before. No one now believes they have done anything but oppress their own people and few on the world stage are prepared to argue otherwise (even if rogue players like Russia's Putin are still pulling for them).

Whether this administration will now repeat the last administration's boneheaded play, when they pushed to restore a dethroned Chavez in the interests of "democracy," remains to be seen. But if the evidence of Obama's recent feints on the court holds, I'm guessing he'll mostly offer a bunch of fine words about the importance of the democratic process and the need to restore ousted presidents, but that little will be done as Honduras moves to its next legitimate presidential election, now only a few months away. There's something to be said for a bit of realpolitik and strategic thinking instead of hanging on the one-note principle of 'all democracy/all the time'. Bush had the ideas right, but not the execution. Obama's drive down center court, finessing his way around opposing offensive guards, may gain us a few points yet on the international playing field. At the least, we have the right to hope he'll nail it when he jumps to make that all important down court hookshot. Now if he'd only get some better plays on the domestic side of this court, too. rockirreg @aol. com.

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