What Principle is Guiding Obama’s Honduras Policy?

The Obama administration is threatening not to recognize the result of Honduras’ presidential election in late November unless Manuel Zelaya returns to the presidency beforehand.

The presidential poll was already scheduled prior to Zelaya’s (constitutional) removal from office last June. The candidates had already been selected by their parties through an open primary process. The current civilian interim president, Roberto Micheletti, is not running for office and plans to step down in January as stipulated by the Constitution. Both major presidential candidates supported the ouster of Zelaya. The political campaign is playing out in an orderly manner, and there’s a significant chance that the candidate from the opposition National Party will win the presidency. The independent Electoral Tribunal is overseeing the process.

And yet the U.S. Department of State is signaling that it won’t recognize the result of the poll in the name of defending Zelaya’s return to power. However, the administration’s defense of ousted leaders seems to have some caveats.

Last July, The Economist reported that Mauritania’s General Muhammad Ould Abdelaziz, the head of the military junta who led the coup that overthrew that country’s first democratically-elected president, got himself elected as civilian president after an election that the opposition called an “elected coup.” However, despite “a certain number of irregularities,” Washington recognized Abdelaziz’s election as a reflection of the “will of the Mauritanian people” and stated its willingness to work with his government.

Why is it that the election in Mauritania—with its many blatant flaws—passed the Obama administration’s legitimacy litmus test but the one in Honduras already seems set to fail it? What foreign policy principle is the administration applying in Honduras? Certainly not respect for democracy or the rule of law, both of which Zelaya was trying to subvert when he was removed from office.