In October, 1956, students in Budapest launched a demonstration against the Soviet-supported Hungarian puppet regime. They were fired upon by the State Security Police and the revolt quickly spread through the capital and, later, the entire country. The U.S., while generally supportive of anti-Soviet rebellion, also had to weigh the risks of nuclear confrontation. As a result, the Western response was mixed: Radio Free Europe initially gave the impression that NATO forces would intervene to help the resistance, but in the end no help was forthcoming. By early November, Soviet forces had entered the country, crushed the resistance, and re-established Hungary as a satellite state.
After the first Gulf War in 1990-91, U.S.-led United Nations troops liberated Iraq-occupied Kuwait and briefly occupied significant parts of Iraq's southern territory. In the aftermath, with the Sunni-majority Ba'ath regime apparently weak, a Shi'ite rebellion broke out in southern Iraq. As in 1956, the rebellion was encouraged by the West, including Voice of America broadcasts. And again, the U.S. did nothing to help when state security arrived to crush the rebellion. It was quickly quashed.
These were not the proudest moments in our nation's history. They represent a natural tension between our national impulse to help oppressed people in need and the facts on the ground. In Hungary, the Soviet Union almost certainly had stronger forces in place than NATO could have ousted without a nuclear confrontation. And in Iraq, the U.S. could only have intervened by breaking the cease fire that ended Operation Desert Storm, probably causing an irreparable splintering in the coalition that liberated Kuwait. U.S. inaction in both cases was arguably reasonable.
A tyranny is like a storm-wracked ship, its passengers constantly imperiled by the elements. Whatever danger they are in, though, it beats actually being in the sea. When the vast American ship of state steams by, stabilized against the storm, sporting a well-fed crew and bristling with weapons, it is only natural that the passengers look wistfully at it. And when a couple of life preservers are tossed over the side, maybe a few will jump at the chance to escape. It is then tragic when the ship continues on, unheeding, leaving those brave few to their fate.
As we are seeing from events in Iran, the Obama administration has internalized this lesson. No life preservers are being proffered this time. He has taken criticism on this from neo-conservatives, and indeed it might be the wrong move. Outspoken American support for dissidents in the Soviet Union proved enormously helpful to them, and did not invite rash dives into unknown waters. But what is going on in Iran appears more like Hungarian and Iraqi demonstrations and unrest than like the Soviet dissident movement.
Honduras, though, is entirely different, and here President Obama has seriously erred. Deposed President Zelaya tried to set himself up as dictator-for-life in the Venezuelan model, and in fact was and is backed by Hugo Chavez. Nearly all of Honduras' highest government officials opposed the move, and took what legal actions they could to prevent them. When Zelaya tried to strong-arm his way past their resistance, the Honduran military removed him on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court and installed the next-highest member of Zelaya's Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti, as President pro tempore until a new election could be held. Micheletti has promised to hold elections earlier than the scheduled date of November 29 to bring legitimacy to his government.
President Obama, along with most of the rest of the world, is publicly backing Zelaya. This is hard to understand. Zelaya is not pro-American, and wishes to bring Honduras into closer alignment with Chavez, an outspoken opponent of America. So supporting him does not advance American interests. Further, Zelaya now constitutes the leader of a minority resistance. He has little popular support, lacks the support of the Honduran military, and is not currently in control of the levers of power. Supporting him is therefore more likely, not less, to lead to armed conflict of the type Obama is assiduously trying not to encourage in Iran.
In our past mistakes, the U.S. allowed tyrannies to re-establish control over areas that we encouraged to strive for freedom. In Honduras, we have found a simpler way: we are encouraging tyranny to establish control and actively discouraging the strivers. The past often holds lessons for the future. Czechoslovakia tried to break free of the Soviet model in 1968, and the tanks subsequently rolled in. Alexander Dubček, remembering what happened in Hungary, called for his people not to resist. Let us hope that future resisters do not have cause to look on Honduras the same way.