A Response – There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye

Was too much to ask a response to come from the White House or even elsewhere in the Senate?
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There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye

In today’s New York Times, Senator Webb makes his case for a new American policy on Burma. For someone so closely identified with opposition to sanctions, one would expect his alternative to be much bolder. After so much build up, is this it?

Senator Webb’s policy suggestions boil down to talking with the junta government, increasing humanitarian aid, and cooperation on the recovery of American World War II remains. Perhaps, he is only being realistic. In the current environment, when Congress has just unanimously approved and the President has signed extensions of sweeping sanctions, he has carefully identified areas where he has some prospect of success. No doubt, he may also be previewing – by design or intuition – the results of the Administration’s Burma policy review.

The problem with the Senator’s case is not the specific policy prescriptions he offers, but its faulty assumptions.

Assumption #1: Sanctions have failed; engagement will work.

It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma. But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort. Besides, engagement by Burma’s neighbors has been no more effective. In taking his lead from Burma’s neighbors on engagement, Senator Webb should understand that ASEAN’s engagement has failed for good reason; it was never intended to bring about democratic change Burma. That goal has always been its rationalization for doing business with an odious regime.

As for the Chinese, there is at least integrity in their position; it has never argued for engagement on the basis of bringing democratic change to Burma. But for that reason, Senator Webb is barking up the wrong Chinese tree – as, in fact, he acknowledges may be the case. The truth is the Chinese will never bring meaningful pressure to bear on the junta. They proved that with a veto in the Security Council in 2007. And they have proven it by watering down every statement the Security Council makes when called to act.

Assumption #2: Normalization with Vietnam and China are models for Burma policy.

Senator Webb is fond of citing normalization of economic and diplomatic relations with Vietnam as a precedent for engaging Burma. But there is a fundamental difference. Vietnam made a strategic decision in 1986 to reform its economy and open up to the world. Without this decision, the subsequent normalization could not have happened. It is the same regarding U.S. normalization with China. The Burmese junta has not made such a strategic decision. They reach out piece meal for means of securing their grip on power. That’s why they joined ASEAN in 1997. There was a time in the 1990s when the Burmese were open to foreign visitors with critical perspectives.

They are much more discerning nowadays. Senator Webb was granted his historic meeting with Than Shwe because the Senator is an opponent of current American policy and his presence could be used – as it was – to send a signal of regime stability to the long suffering people of Burma.

Assumption #3: The new Burmese constitution is a basis for engagement.

Senator Webb rightly rests much of his case on Burma’s 2010 elections. But by focusing on “what is possible” instead of “free and fair elections”, he leaves little doubt that what he intends is to accept the junta’s terms. That intention is not just a matter of speculation. He made it clear in Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell’s confirmation hearing when the Senator pressed for an endorsement of the Burmese sham constitution. And in his New York Times piece today, when he recites the flaws in the constitution, he fails to list the biggest problem – the bar on Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation.

He advises her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to participate in the elections despite this and despite the fact that the constitution is designed to ensure elections do not bring about a change in government. That is an extraordinarily tough call for them to make. Abandon the icon of the democracy movement, a Nobel Laureate, the inspiration of the Burmese people, to take part in a process that will validate an illegal government and relegate their 1990 victory to the dustbin of history. Who will they turn to then?

Assumption #4: American sanctions have given Chinese investment and interests a leg up.

Senator Webb, at his most admirable, is extremely worried about Chinese strategic interest in Southeast Asia. It is true that the Chinese are heavily involved in the Burmese economy and that they are using Burma for their own strategic purposes. But would permitting American investment change that? Not likely. Could the Burmese take American investment and still use Chinese investment to build mines, ports and pipelines to secure the flow of resources to China? Yes. In fact, they might find American investors to help. The only thing that will change China’s calculus is a change in the nature of the Burmese regime.

Throughout his Op-Ed, Senator Webb refers to Burma by its junta-designated name, “Myanmar.” That is certainly pleasing to the ears of the generals. In a microcosm it represents the problem with engagement. The NLD does not recognize the name “Myanmar”. The State Department through successive Administrations has refused to call it “Myanmar.” And Congress certainly doesn’t call it “Myanmar.”

But simply for the price of gaining a Burmese general’s ear, and nothing more, Senator Webb is willing to abide by the Burmese junta’s sensitivities. It is difficult to argue against increased humanitarian assistance – appropriately channeled through international NGOs and closely monitored for abuse – or cooperation to find remains of missing American airmen. It’s even difficult to argue against meeting with Burmese authorities under the right circumstances.

President Bush’s Administration did, and we do have diplomatic relations with Burma after all. (Senator Webb’s meetings in Burma in the wake of Suu Kyi’s conviction were decidedly not the right time.) But like changing the name we call it, these things are not going to elicit a response on the things Americans care about. It is certainly not the beginning of a road map to a normal US-Burma relationship.

More likely, if carried by Senator Webb’s assumptions, engagement will so invest America in the process of engagement itself that it will offer new slices off its current policy of “maximum pressure” just to keep it going, but with no real progress.

The North Koreans have mastered this game, and the Burmese are learning. What they have lacked is a playing partner. They have found one in Senator Webb. Let’s hope they do not find partners in President Obama and Secretary Clinton.

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