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The State Department and a tale of two coup-type things

The US has a history of being non-committal to defining coups when it goes against their interests, writes author.

Last Modified: 09 Aug 2013 13:21
Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
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US Secretary of State John Kerry recently described the recent coup in Egypt as "restoring democracy" [AP]

Some readers may not be acquainted with an alternative source of entertainment known as the US State Department Daily Press Briefings.

These sessions - videos and transcripts of which appear on the department's website - consist of large quantities of words emitted by departmental spokespersons whose principle objective often appears to be to not actually say anything.

Consider, for example, the July 3 briefing on the subject of the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup, an event the US prefers to see as categorically undefinable.

A journalist in the audience attempts to force acknowledgement of the obvious: "[I]n the diplomatic parlance, whenever the military takes the president, the democratically elected president, and places him under house arrest, is that considered a coup d'etat?"

Egyptians continue protests on Eid holiday

In response, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterates that "I'm not going to speak to reports that we don't have confirmation of" and that "we're monitoring [events] closely, and as situations warrant a statement, we certainly always consider that".

The July 26 briefing, which followed the Obama administration's decision not to decide whether the military coup was in fact a military coup, also yielded fruitful exchanges:

MS PSAKI: ...The law does not require us to make a formal determination - that is a review that we have undergone - as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination...

QUESTION: Okay. Can you explain to me, or to all of us, how it took this crack team of warriors three and a half weeks to come up with a determination that essentially sounds like something that Sergeant Schultz would have said on "Hogan's Heroes", or that we might all know as being the motto that is underneath pictures of three monkeys covering their ears, mouth, and -

MS PSAKI: I am not a big "Hogan's Heroes" fan. (Laughter.) But -

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, if you don't get the cultural reference, it's, "I know nothing; I see nothing", and -

MS PSAKI: I understood the monkey reference.

QUESTION: - the monkeys - you got that one?

MS PSAKI: I just wanted to make sure that on Hogan's Heroes I wasn't going to follow that analogy.

QUESTION: Okay. So how - it took three and a half weeks to come up with a decision that you're going to ignore the law?

While endeavouring to argue that ignorance of the law requiring a cutoff in US aid to regimes brought to power by military coups in fact constitutes "abiding the law", Psaki is asked by the press to cite precedents to the decision on Egypt.

The answer: "I'm not a historian, as we all know, and there's a lot going on here, so I certainly haven't reviewed historical references".

The other 'whatever you call it'

Other observers have enjoyed a bit more success when it comes to locating possible precedents for current US behaviour. A recent blog post at The Economist lists a sampling of instances from past decades in which the US proved similarly reluctant to suspend assistance to post-coup regimes, as in this case: "In 1973 the Chilean military overthrew the elected president, Salvador Allende. American military assistance to Chile increased".

Followers of the State Department's daily press briefings during the summer of 2009 might meanwhile find that the current briefings ring a bell. On June 29, 2009, one day after Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the Honduran military, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly presided over this discussion:

QUESTION: So Ian, I'm sorry, just to confirm - so you're not calling it a coup, is that correct? Legally, you're not considering it a coup?

MR KELLY: Well, I think you all saw the OAS [Organization of American States] statement last night, which called it a coup d'etat, and you heard what the Secretary [of State] just said. Having said that, we're also very cognizant of the particulars of US law on this. So let us get back to you on the legal definition issue. I don't want to necessarily make policy up here.

QUESTION: Can you check if you've actually begun the process yet of determining from a formal legal standpoint whether indeed it is a military coup?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Okay, sure.

As for what it was that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said, a Washington Post dispatch from the same day notes:

"'We are withholding any formal legal determination', Clinton told reporters at a State Department briefing. She acknowledged, however, that it certainly looked like a coup when soldiers snatched a pajama-clad Zelaya and whisked him off to Costa Rica."

A July 1 State Department teleconference briefing with two characters referred to as Senior Administration Official One and Senior Administration Official Two produced new ways of dancing around the coup classification:

QUESTION: And so this is properly classified as a military coup?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, it's a golpe de estado [Spanish for coup d'etat]. The military moved against the president; they removed him from his home and they expelled him from a country, so the military participated in a coup. However, the transfer of leadership was not a military action. The transfer of leadership was done by the Honduran congress, and therefore the coup, while it had a military component, it has a larger - it is a larger event.

The "event" became even more complex in mid-August when I had the opportunity to attend a meetingat the US embassy in Tegucigalpa. After Deputy Mission Chief Simon Henshaw definitively pronounced the coup "a military coup", Ambassador Hugo Llorens revised the description to "Well, whatever you call it".

Fault Lines: The US and Honduras

A National Security Advisor to George Bush on Latin American issues during the 2002 US-supported coup against Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Llorens excused the US failure to suspend aid to Honduras on account of the fact that the bulk of the funds were already "in the pipeline".

The same argument was offered to justify the continued training of Honduran personnel at US military institutions. Llorens meanwhile amended his initial claim that the joint US-Honduran military base at Soto Cano had been "shut down", declaring that US troops were in fact still there but that they weren't speaking to their native counterparts.

'Restoring democracy'

During the July teleconference briefing on Honduras, Senior Administration Official One stressed that "in the 21st century, these kinds of coups don't last long. It is very hard for a country like Honduras to maintain this kind of position in the face of overwhelming rejection by the world".

In the end, of course, the coup lasted, thanks in no small part to the US State Department's protracted hemming and hawing over what kind of coup it was. When the Honduran coup regime then staged illegitimate elections in November 2009, the Obama administration led the celebration.

In a 2012 New York Times op-ed titled "In Honduras, a Mess Made in the U.S.", University of California professor Dana Frank notes:

"President Obama quickly recognized [Porfirio] Lobo's victory, even when most of Latin America would not. Mr. Lobo's government is, in fact, a child of the coup. It retains most of the military figures who perpetrated the coup, and no one has gone to jail for starting it."

Hillary Clinton's take on a situation characterised by impunity and rampant human rights abuses was registered as follows: "We believe that President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy".

Egypt at 'dangerous stalemate' in political crisis

Incidentally, a similar refrain was recently emitted by Clinton's successor John Kerry, who announced that the Egyptian military - guilty of a variety of forms of deadly repression - had been "restoring democracy" by overthrowing the elected leader last month.

While "democracy" in Honduras means commitment to a far-right political agenda, something that had been jeopardised by the left-leaning Zelaya, its manifestation in Egypt includes a religious component. In a July op-ed for Al Jazeera, Georgetown University's John L Esposito writes about a certain "double standard" associated with the US:

"Now, in emerging democracies, the rules of the game do not apply to a democratically elected Islamic government. This is reflected in the Obama administration's equivocation and, in effect, denial that the removal of Morsi was a coup just as it was reflected when the George W Bush administration equivocated about calling water-boarding torture or the rendition programme a violation of human rights and international law. And before him, his father George H W Bush's administration agreement to the Algerian military's takeover in the face of the Islamic Salvation Front's electoral victory, resulting in a 'dirty war' that left more than 150,000 Algerians dead."

To be sure, the power to name and un-name things at will comes in handy among specialists in unscrupulous behaviour.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Salon, The Baffler, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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