To the great chagrin of the State Department, a group of Republicans led by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint have opened up a second front of U.S. engagement toward Honduras, conducting their own version of shuttle diplomacy.
DeMint took a band of lawmakers to meet with the de facto regime there this weekend, maneuvering past objections of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry to set up a channel of communication with the new leadership, which has been completely snubbed by the Obama administration.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear that the U.S. is siding with ousted President Manuel Zelaya, but Zelaya's erratic behavior since he snuck back into Honduras and holed himself up in the Brazilian Embassy, combined with the apparent failure of diplomatic efforts by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and the Organization of American States, has provided an opening for those in Washington who argue that engaging the current leadership there is both strategic and practical.
Back in Washington, the battle over Honduras policy is tangled up with DeMint's effort to hold up the nominations of two of Obama's key Latin America appointees, Thomas Shannon to be U.S. ambassador to Brazil and Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-IN, said in an interview with The Cable that he supports the GOP trips to Honduras but not DeMint's holds.
"On balance it may be helpful. Clearly there was an impasse there," said Lugar, referring to the trips. "Our foreign policy has tried to be mindful and consistent with the OAS and this has led really to our having really no representation in the country."
Lugar himself intended to visit with de facto President Roberto Micheletti before the State Department pulled his visa as part of its freeze-out.
Lugar has pressed DeMint repeatedly to drop the holds. He said that a successful election on Nov. 29 election and a recognition of the election results by the administration would likely lead to DeMint releasing his holds and could also represent the way out of the crisis.
"Presently I think we're headed toward a foreign-policy disaster of an election that would not be recognized by anybody and really no way out of the pass," said Lugar.
OAS officials are in Tegucigalpa today to try to mediate between the two sides, with Shannon as part of the delegation. And although Lugar is hopeful, he is preparing to press the administration later this week to alter its Honduras policy to prepare for a post-Nov. 29 relationship with whoever wins.
"For the moment I see an impending debacle which would be very unfortunate for the people of Honduras, quite apart from a failure of our own foreign policy," Lugar said.
DeMint briefed GOP senators on his trip during Tuesday's caucus lunch, the first full discussion of the issue among Republicans, Lugar said.
Congressman Peter Roskam, R-Ill, also spoke with The Cable just after returning from Tegucigalpa to talk about his delegation and the strategy behind the GOP's controversial engagement approach.
The delegation, which in addition to DeMint and Roskam included Reps. Aaron Schock, R-FL, and Doug Lamborn, R-CO, met with Micheletti, as well as several other senior regime leaders, the entire Supreme Court, all the candidates for the upcoming election, several American expatriates, and selected representatives of Honduran civil society groups.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, was expected to meet with Micheletti as well the next day.
Although the State Department tried to prevent the delegation from going, U.S. consular officials did assist the delegation logistically, but did not participate in the meetings, Roskam said. The delegation also had a tense meeting with U.S. Amb. Hugo Llorens, in which Roskam described him as being "very defensive."
"The very consistent theme that was coming across was a sense of bewilderment from all the Hondurans we were meeting with at their treatment by the United States," Roskam related.
Micheletti acknowledged to the group that he did not have the authority to physically remove Zelaya from the country, but he seeks communication with the U.S. government and was not pleased that the State Department had cut him off.
The conclusion Roskam drew from the trip was that the problem in Honduras won't be solved until the Nov. 29 election, in which neither Micheletti nor Zelaya is running -- that is, if it can meet reasonable standards of freedom and fairness.
U.S. trade with Honduras is at stake, Roskam argued, and is needed to counter the expanding regional influence of anti-American forces such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
"It's in our interest to lay out a clear pathway after which we can recognize a government that's chosen on November 29," Roskam said, "The Hondurans are going to choose."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.