President Obama branded as “not legal” the the military coup in Honduras, where elected President Manuel (Mel) Zelaya was kidnapped and flown out of the country by soldiers bent on blocking an advisory vote on constitutional reform in the country.

Obama said a “terrible precedent” would be set if the coup were not reversed, adding that “We do not want to go back to a dark past. We always want to stand with democracy.”

The president’s statement — which toughened up a tepid earlier announcement that he was “deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras” — came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the crisis as “a test of the inter-American system’s ability to support and defend democracy and constitutional order in our hemisphere.”

“The United States has been working with our partners in the OAS (Organization of American States) to fashion a strong consensus condemning the detention and expulsion of President Zelaya, and calling for the full restoration of democratic order in Honduras,” she said Monday. “Our immediate priority is to restore full democratic and constitutional order in that country.”

As the military and civil officials behind the coup clamped down on communications in Honduras and soldiers used tear gas outside the Honduran presidential palace to scatter thousands of people protesting a coup, President Zelaya was scheduled to speak tothe United Nations General Assembly.

Senior aides to the Obama administration tell reporters that U.S. diplomats were working to ensure Zelaya’s safe return. And the Wall Street Journal suggests that the administration may have worked behind the scenes to try and avert the coup.

But Roberto Lovato has been arguing that the U.S. should ramp up its response. The savvy expert on U.S. relations with Latin America writes:

President Obama and the U.S. can actually do something about a military crackdown that our tax dollars are helping pay for. That Vasquez and other coup leaders were trained at the WHINSEC, which also trained Augusto Pinochet and other military dictators responsible for the deaths, disappearances, tortures of hundreds of thousands in Latin America, sends profound chills throughout a region still trying to overcome decades U.S.-backed militarism.

Hemispheric concerns about the coup were expressed in the rapid, historic and almost universal condemnation of the plot by almost all Latin American governments. Such concerns in the region represent an opportunity for the United States. But, while the Honduran coup represents a major opportunity for Obama to make real his recent and repeated calls for a “new” relationship to the Americas, failure to take actions that send a rapid and unequivocal denunciation of the coup will be devastating to the Honduran people — and to the still-fragile U.S. image in the region.

Recent declarations by the Administration — expressions of “concern” by the President and statements by Secretary of State Clinton recognizing Zelaya as the only legitimate, elected leader of Honduras — appear to indicate preliminary disapproval of the putsch. Yet, the even more unequivocal statements of condemnation from U.N. President Miguel D’Escoto, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Presidents of Argentina, Costa Rica and many other governments raise greatly the bar of expectation before the Obama Administration.

There is no question that Obama must be outspoken. This is a time when clarity is essential, and potentially influential.

There is also a role for members of Congress, who need to examine the timing and character of this coup — which was carried out by military officers trained in the U.S. at the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), in a country with a substantial U.S. military base (home to roughly 500 troops and air force combat planes and helicopters) in Soto Cano. It is difficult to imagine that the Honduran military would have moved against Zelaya without notifying U.S. military officials — a prospect that, considering the sordid history of Washington’s entanglements in the region, ought to be reviewed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Honest players on that committee, such as Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, have a right and a responsibility to ask tough questions about the removal of a democratically-elected leader whose most serious “crime” appears to have been a determination to challenge the corrupt status quo in his country.

Zelaya, a businessman with a record of activism on behalf of decentralization of power and respect for indigenous peoples, was elected in 2005 as the relatively moderate candidate of the country’s historically powerful Liberal Party.

Photographed in genial conversation with former President George Bush, he was not viewed as a particularly radical player when he took office. But Zelaya’s left-leaning economic and social policies earned praise from labor unions and civil society groups, and he had forged regional alliances with the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other elected leaders in Latin America established as a counter to the neoliberal trade and security policies pushed by the U.S. under Bush.

That made relations with the U.S. somewhat more tense, especially as Zelaya wrangled with conservative forces over media, presidential succession and constitional issues.

Chavez has suggested that U.S. meddling — and a Central Intelligence Agency tie — enabled the coup.

School of the Americas Watch is following developments closely, and well — lots of fresh photos and blogging on its site.