In exchange for the release of John Yettaw, the American who provided Burma’s ruling junta an excuse to extend the house arrest of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, Senator Jim Webb provided the junta an opportunity for saturation media coverage of what will pass there as US endorsement of its rule.
This was a simple transaction. Junta chief Than Shwe got what he wanted, and he gave up something (someone) that had already served the regime’s purpose. It will not lead to a new opening in US-Burma relations – unless of course, the US is prepared to pare its objectives in a way that ensures the regime meets them. As Senator Webb has indicated before, this would entail accepting elections next year under a sham constitution. And, as things now stand, a lowered standard would also have to allow for the continued detention of Suu Kyi, detention of more than 2000 other political prisoners, and Suu Kyi’s prohibition from competing in the elections. That is not a road map. It is capitulation.
The Obama Administration claims it simply gave Senator Webb the customary support the State Department gives to any traveling Senator. Maybe so. But it may also be a no-lose effort to facilitate a change in policy without really taking a stand in favor of it. “Engagement” and meetings with dictators do not constitute policy unto themselves; they are diplomatic tools. In the most recent expression of policy, the House, Senate, and White House just weeks ago renewed sweeping sanctions against Burma. Until the Administration takes a clear stand on a new policy, Burma, the world, and concerned Americans can only assume that the policy of bringing maximum pressure to bear on Burma’s ruling generals stands.
The Administration has amply demonstrated that it can secure the release of Americans in difficult circumstances abroad. The verdict is still out on whether it can secure American national interests in the process. Deals like this are a bad sign. Either it is allowing others to drive US policy or it is confusing what is essentially consular work with foreign policy. It is time for the Administration to lay its cards on the table, complete its review of America’s Burma policy and let Washington fight it out.