Monday, December 6, 2010

The First Reaction from the US Embassy

Wikileaks has now released more Honduran cables (see quotha for a list with links). The latest includes a cable from June 29, 2009-- the day after the coup itself. Paragraphs 13 and 14 are a report about the coup in the heading "significant events":
13. (C) WHA Honduras - Honduran military forces arrested
President Manuel Zelaya June 28 according to orders issued by
the National Congress and the Supreme Court of Honduras.
Zelaya was taken to a local air force base and flown to Costa
Rica. Emergency Action Committee (EAC) Tegucigalpa
subsequently met to discuss the ramifications of the seizure
of the president by host-cost country military forces. The
RSO noted the general climate in the capital was calm;
however, a standfast order was issued, and additional
security measures were implemented. The Embassy released a
Warden Message regarding the actions against Zelaya and urged
AmCits to remain in the residences or hotels for the day.

14. (C) Later in the day, Congress officially named Roberto
Micheletti interim president. The U.S. Ambassador gave a
press conference outside the Embassy; he insisted that
President Zelaya was the only democratically elected
president of the country and urged that freedom of expression
and circulation be restored. He also demanded the release of
those government officials said to be in military custody.
The EAC reconvened to assess the situation. Protest activity
has centered around the presidential palace, some roads in
the capital were blocked, and there were some troops on the
street. However, traffic flow was reported normal in most of
the city. Authorized Departure for family members was
discussed, but not warranted at this time. Embassy personnel
were advised to remain in their homes for the rest of the day
and to limit their movements today, June 29. All Peace Corps
volunteers have been accounted for and are on standfast. Post
will be open today for emergency services only. The EAC will
continue monitoring events in-country and provide updated
information as available. (Tegucigalpa Spot Report; telcon;
Warden Message; Appendix sources 8-10)

There has been an explosion of punditry over the first cable, all reaching whatever conclusion they had already reached, in which perhaps the most interesting thing from our perspective is the repudiation of the analysis by conservative congress members and their continued insistence that there was "no coup": Connie Mack and colleagues are more insistent on this point now than any Hondurans, with the possible exception of Roberto Micheletti. Otherwise, the Honduran perspective has been that yeah, it was a coup, but (in the notorious phrase) a "good coup".

We would agree that the cables are unlikely to change minds, and we doubt there are any true smoking guns to find. The smoking guns were all out in the open in US policy on Honduras: dithering about whether it was a "military" coup; Thomas Shannon assuring the Honduran and US right wing that whether or not the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord was implemented properly, the US would recognize whoever came out on top in the presidential election; and the outright failure of scholarship embodied in the Library of Congress producing a report that validated the coup through an analysis repudiated by leading scholars of the Honduran constitution, through relying on the personal communications of an advocate of the coup.

But from the perspective of researchers on history, and on the production and circulation of meanings, seeing the precise way things unfolded does matter.

It matters that on the day after the coup, the US Embassy, despite the ambassador speaking out against the coup, reported that President Zelaya had been "arrested" (when he had not been); that this was on "orders of the National Congress and the Supreme Court" (when it was not); and that he "was taken to a local air base" (without mentioning the stop at Soto Cano/Palmerola).

And it matters that the cable says "Congress officially named Roberto Micheletti interim president". Not only does that mistakenly imply that congress had the authority to act ("officially": why not say "illegally", or "extra-officially"-- especially as the special session held violated the rules of order for Congress, people who voted reportedly included members without authority, and the reported number of votes has always be questioned).

Worse: it gives Micheletti a status that even the Honduran Congress did not try to give him. Their claim was that he was now "President". By inventing an office of "interim president", the US early on chose to treat Micheletti as a legitimate actor, insisting that he and the real elected president negotiate.

The US, in other words, never quite got the point about what constituted the rule of law in Honduras. In this they joined many Honduran political actors; and yes, I hear you all already telling me that's how politics works.

But some situations present us with a moment of choice: do we follow principle, or abandon it? The US never even seems to have contemplated the issues-- despite having an ambassador who clearly understood them in place in the country.


phoenixwoman said...

I think one also has to look at the intended audience to properly contextualize the memos. The Llorens cable is narrowcast, basically to Shannon, Koh, Donoghue, and Tom Restrepo. There's no reason to think Llorens expected anyone else to read it. The cable from Clinton regarding Honduras, although it says, "The U.S. Ambassador ... insisted that President Zelaya was the only democratically elected president of the country..." is directed to a much wider audience. While I don't know exactly who got it, I would guess that "SECURITY OFFICER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY" means that all security officers worldwide got the cable with instructions to actually read it. Also, the cable does not endorse the ambassador's statement (although the fact that he made such a statement does carry a lot of weight).

I don't think it is necessarily correct that the cables will not settle the argument of the US role in the coup. There are several issues that might not have been classified above secret that could have been the topic of cables. One is the role that Llorens was playing in pre-coup discussions, and what various players were telling him. Another is the touchdown at Palmerola. If the US were not involved, I find it difficult to understand why a discussion of this issue would be classified above Secret. One would expect State to ask Llorens about reports of the touchdown at Palmerola, and a reply. If the US was involved, such discussions would presumably be more highly classified. A final issue is the question of the reporting of human rights abuses. Surely there would have been a mention of the shooting of Isis Obed Murillo when Zelaya tried to land, since this carried the potential for a profound emotional response. Similarly, reporting around the time of Zelaya's crossings into Honduras, first not really successfully from Nicaragua, then successfully when he arrived at the Brazilian embassy could help to explain Hillary's shrillings about this being "reckless"... a very peculiar way to characterize the return to his native land of a citizen illegally dispossessed. Finally, if the US was not involved in the deployment of toxic gases, sound weapons, advanced weapons, etc., one would expect some discussion of where these things were coming from. After all, these things potentially threatened the American embassy as well as the Brazilian.


RAJ said...

We agree that new cables may well help address the elusive topic of US fore-knowledge and possible discussions with actors who went on to carry out the coup.

We continue to reflect on our own impressions the week leading up to the coup, in which the Congress began an "impeachment" process it was not authorized to carry out, and wonder if that took place with US foreknowledge.

What I said in the quickly drafted post (as I am wandering the globe at present and working pretty much all the time on research) was that the cables will be interpreted by those on either side of the issue as they wish: for Connie Mack, the Llorens cable proved that Llorens was bad, and has not moved his insistence that there was no coup. For those most opposed to the coup, most suspicious of the US, Llorens' cable only says that the US response is even more vapid, since the right analysis was in place early on.

My main point is: pay attention to the words used. Yes, audience matters. But so do the inherent conceptual frameworks set in place when we report that someone was "arrested", or that an action "officially" replaced someone.

David said...

RAJ, in your main commentary, I think you may be reading too much into what is being expressed in this cable.

For me, the fact that the cable reports that the US Ambassador "insisted that President Zelaya was the only democratically elected president of the country and urged that freedom of expression and circulation be restored. He also demanded the release ofthose government officials said to be in military custody."

Perhaps it should have read "interim" president when referring to Micheletti, or "arrested" when referring to Zelaya, etc. To me, the public declaration of the Ambassador demonstrates the official view of the Embassy. The other wss straightforward regurgitation of what was in the press.

phoenixwoman said...

Yes, every element of the communication deserves careful scrutiny. The whole art of diplomacy comes down to saying things in specific, stylized forms, so to ignore the phrasing would be as blind as to fail to see ballet positions. And there's no question that the backers of the coup in the US Congress have no trouble turning black into white.

Here we have a cable from Clinton which sounds as if State is completely on board with Llorens in denouncing the coup. But is it? Saying that Zelaya is the only "democratically elected president" is different than saying, say that Zelaya is the only leader the US will recognize. It ascribes the statement to the ambassador, rather than a stronger statement, such as The US Ambassador conveyed the statement of the President of the United States that Zelaya is the only democratically elected president. And, as you point out, it adopts the language of legalism by which the coup masked its illegal actions. That's a sure sign that State to some degree accepts the coup.

But perhaps even more important, the cable is not going to any regional diplomats. It's going to Tripoli, Casablanca, Johannesburg, and security officers. So, it's probably not intended to shape the response to the coup by cueing the diplomats to what they ought to think and say. Llorens' cable clearly does intend to shape the response.

Anyway, angels/pin. I know you know these things.


David said...

Second point: if you read the cable, as historians will likely do, it will become clear that this is a compilation document issued by the Secretary of State to Security Officers worldwide.

Thus this did not unequivocally originate from the US Embassy, and who knows who wrote these two (out of 64 paragraphs) or how it was edited, or how many times, etc.

RAJ said...


speaking as a historical social scientist who in fact studies documents, I am reading the whole cable and understand its context.

What I am arguing is that selection of words matters. It reflects embodied assumptions that translate themselves into action.

US reactions were muddled and made things much worse, because above all else the US government promoted a reaction that granted Roberto Micheletti the status of a person to be bargained with. The roots of that mistake are here, in language that says that Zelaya was arrested by official order, and that Micheletti was officially made "interim president".

The US needed to understand that Micheletti was appointed dictator. It is what he acted like.

It in fact hardly matters who wrote the cable (although that will be of interest to historians) and not knowing that-- or ascribing it to a functionary-- does not change the way language use here reveals a failure to name the travesty what it was at the beginning.

I think Charles's comments in his second post here are precisely on target.

David said...

Alas, I didn't have access to Charles' second comment (and hadn't really focused on the first) when I wrote my comments, which were directed to the title and text that mistakenly attributed these first reactions as emanating from the US Embassy. I do think that Charles' second comment -- "it's probably not intended to shape the response to the coup by cueing the diplomats to what they ought to think and say. Llorens' cable clearly does intend to shape the response." -- is on target.

However, again, I think one would have to know more about how these cables are written, and by whom, to draw too many conclusions about what the intent is. If the cable is meant as "news" and not "policy" -- which is pretty clear it is not -- then one shouldn't try to parse every word as if it were a policy statement. I would wonder if the FSO or civil servant who prepared the daily brief knew much about Honduras at all as s/he compiled the worldwide security brief that was sent out from the Secretary's office.

RAJ said...

Again, I simply suggest that where you find word choices that are unconsidered unimportant, as an anthropologist, I think these are among the most revealing things as they reflect inherent assumptions.

I think saying that the title of the post "mistakenly attributed" the cable to the US Embassy is overstating it. I apologize to anyone who finds that confusing, including you.

But trying to draw a distinction between words that, as "news", cannot be parsed, and those, that as "policy", can, is simply an error. Words are always shot through with ideologies. And these words represented a way of thinking on the part of the US diplomatic community that I think is equally evident in what followed.

phoenixwoman said...

In reading the dialogue between RAJ and David, I am inspired to add this point:

In organizations, there are moments when the policy makers who most strongly influence the organization consciously make an effort to convey instructions on what people are to do or think. But part of being a leader is making one's persona consistent with the policy of the organization. To give a humble example, if a minister tells his/her congregation, "It is forbidden to have sex outside of marriage," that explicitly conveys the ethic (or policy, if you like) of the church. But if any senior leader of the church is tempted to flirt in public, s/he is inhibited by the knowledge that this will undermine the ethic of the church. The appearance of not fully respecting a policy is mentally extrapolated into a violation of policy. So, successful leaders have to adopt personae consistent with the ethic of the organization simply so that there is not even the perception of inconsistency between policy and actions.

This is the point that I think David is missing. While a news bulletin is not consciously intended to shape thoughts and actions, it must conform to the organizational policy in every subtlety. No organization is more conscious of this than State, where every movement, every syllable is scrutinized for meaning.


David said...

RAJ and Charles, I have more to say, but will have to get to that later (probably days later!) Meanwhile, note this NYTimes story on the Diplomatic Security Daily, which the papers calls "a classified roundup of potential horrors facing American diplomats or citizens anywhere in the world," (I think that's a characterization, not a statement of purpose of these cables, but it may be close to the latter), and which references this cable in particular.

phoenixwoman said...

David, I have no idea what your post has to do with the topic of the thread. The Times article throws out a few vague rumors-- a man watching a road. A "massive terrorist attack" that never materialized. Iranian "hackers" (who do not seem to have had anything like the effect of garden variety criminals, many of them American). No context, no story, really. People jumping at shadows. Maybe if American diplomacy weren't involved in so many dirty deeds, American diplomats would be less frightened.

Just speaking for myself, but that looks like a "Hey, look at the shiny object" article.

And post.


David said...

I failed to note that the Times article refers to the same Diplomatic Security Daily that we're discussing here. It gets to the issue of the purpose of this particular cable -- to alert embassies about threats to Americans.