Unrest abroad tests U.S.

By Lee Hamilton
Jul 27 2009

 Events within a foreign country often have broad ramifications and pose serious challenges to the United States. This certainly has been true over the past two months.

A military coup in Honduras, popular protests on the streets of Iran, and ethnic violence in western China all have presented policy dilemmas, forcing the United States to respond to unpredictable situations. These events come at a time when the nation already has its hands full with domestic and foreign challenges.

Still, the world looks to the United States for a response and leadership.

In the middle of the night on June 28, the Honduran military roused President Manuel Zelaya from bed and forced him into exile. Zelaya had sought to amend the Honduran Constitution's term limit to facilitate his re-election in November. He proceeded with a nonbinding referendum, which the Supreme Court and Congress deemed unconstitutional. Zelaya's insistence on pushing the referendum forward prompted the coup plotters to act.

In China's western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, violence erupted July 5. Thousands of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, took to the streets to protest the investigation — flawed, in their view — of the deaths of two Uighur factory workers 1,800 miles away in southeastern China. The protests turned violent, leading to clashes with riot police and Han civilians, who comprise 92 percent of the Chinese population. More than 190 people died, most of them Han, and more than 1,600 suffered injuries. Chinese President Hu Jintao deemed the situation so serious that he cut short his visit to the G-8 summit in Italy.

In Iran, the aftershocks of the disputed June 12 elections continue. While the Revolutionary Guards, police and Basij militia forcibly suppressed peaceful protesters voicing their support for candidate Mir Moussavi — perhaps as many as 2 million Iranians took to the streets — there has been no return to normalcy. Sporadic protests continue. The gulf separating the government and the opposition is vast.

Because of media crackdowns in all three countries, quality information has been hard to come by. But imperfect information is a cause for caution in implementing policy, not an excuse for paralysis.

In Honduras, while President Zelaya is hardly America's best friend in the region, the United States denounced the overthrow of an elected president and suspended military aid. Further punitive action could be in the works.

We must continue to engage our partners in the region, especially Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Óscar Arias, who is attempting to mediate. Our aim should be a peaceful resolution that avoids further polarization in Honduras, keeps the country's elections for a new president later this year on track and free from external interference, and sends the message that military interruptions of the democratic process in the hemisphere will not be tolerated. Support for local efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and systems of checks and balances, as opposed to individual leaders, is necessary. So is continued economic aid to the second poorest country in Latin America. The world will watch our every move, and gauge our commitment to democracy in Honduras and beyond.

In China, the ethnic tension that sparked the rioting will not disappear anytime soon, but the priorities in the U.S.-China relationship remain unchanged: the global economy, North Korea and Iran.

In Iran, the opposition's future is unclear, as is the unrest's long-term impact on the government's credibility. Will splits within elite political and clerical circles cripple the Islamic Republic? Has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory emboldened conservative hardliners with no interest in engaging the United States? Or has the violence undercut their legitimacy, making engagement an enticing opportunity to solidify their rule? Our challenge is to support reformers without destroying the prospects for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

Engagement remains the best tool in our policy kit for keeping Iran's nuclear program peaceful and maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf, the two greatest priorities for the United States. However, we should seek tougher sanctions should Iran reject our overtures.

These three crises reveal the problems the world presents us with, from minority rights to nuclear proliferation. Defining core national interests can be hard, and defending them can be even harder.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)