You and Whose Army?

I’m no scholar on Honduras, to say the least, so I’ll assume the basic facts regarding recent events are in accord with this opinion piece calling for ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s reinstatement:

Zelaya’s fatal mistake was in organizing a de facto referendum to test the idea of allowing him a second term. Honduras’s Constitution explicitly forbids holding referendums — let alone an unsanctioned “popular consultation” — to amend it and, more specifically, to modify the presidential term. Unsurprisingly, the president’s idea met with resistance from Congress, nearly all political parties (including his own), the press, the business community, electoral authorities, and, crucially, the Supreme Court, which deemed the whole endeavor illegal.

Last week, when Zelaya ordered the armed forces to distribute the electoral material to carry out what he called an “opinion poll,” the military commander refused to comply and was summarily dismissed (he was later reinstated by the Supreme Court). The president then cited the troubling history of military intervention in Honduran politics, a past that the country — under more prudent governments — had made great strides in leaving behind in the past two decades. He neglected to mention that the order he had issued was illegal. …

Now the Honduran military has responded in kind: An illegal referendum has met an illegal military intervention, with the avowed intention of protecting the Constitution.

I’m no fan of military coups, or, well, militaries period. But is a military that doesn’t reflexively obey the chief executive the worst thing in the world?

Yes, I understand that there’s a long history of military dictatorship in Latin America, so this sort of thing immediately provokes justified worry. But if the executive of a country is behaving lawlessly, if he flagrantly ignores the constitution, courts, and legislature, then who, exactly, is supposed to rein him in, and how? In modern nation-states, the military and police hold the overwhelming balance of physical force. Any attempt to check or remove an executive, for reasons good or bad, ultimately rests on either the executive’s willingness to obey the law or the armed forces’ willingness to disobey him. I wish it weren’t that way – after all, I’m a fringe lunatic who wants to abolish the state entirely – but it is. You can’t just sprinkle constitution dust on an out-of-control president and make him behave.

Look, steroidal executives in both dictatorships and democracies have traditionally viewed standing armies and police forces as their personal gangs. Witness Andrew Jackson’s reputed sneer in the wake of the Supreme Court’s pro-Cherokee ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832): “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!” Whether Jackson actually said that or not, his actions demonstrated his belief that he who has the guns is the law. Gosh, wouldn’t it have been a tragedy for the Army to disobey that democratically elected president!

And what if a year ago, then-president George W. Bush had said to hell with the 22nd Amendment and decided to hold a referendum on whether he should be allowed a third term? Many American lefties are convinced that Bush stole both the 2000 and 2004 elections, so I know they wouldn’t have tolerated such a proposal for a heartbeat. But even if you don’t believe Bush stole those elections (and I don’t), and even if you think he stood little chance of winning his referendum, there would have been more than enough reason to oppose such a move. It’s the kind of thing that sets a terrible precedent, you know.

UPDATE: Just so there’s no confusion, I’m less interested in the specifics of the Honduras case than in the general issue of the “cult of the presidency.” But the Honduras case is interesting, because, as far as I know, there are no allegations of outside meddling (certainly not by the U.S. government, which supports Zelaya), and the military appears to have relinquished control to the civilian government immediately. So why, when a president flouts the lawful demands of every other branch of the government and gets unceremoniously canned, do we automatically call that “undemocratic”? At which point in a democratically elected executive’s illegal power-grabbing do we decide that it’s OK for the people or their other elected representatives to act forcefully? Why always side with the executive?