Administration Burma Policy: Lift Sanctions, Ask Questions Later
Walter Lohman /
President Obama’s meeting with Burma’s President Thein Sein at the White House today is a stark reminder of how far the Administration has come on Burma policy.
In initiating the annual process for renewal of the ban on Burmese imports last week, Representative Joseph Crowley (D–NY) reiterated his desire that the Administration “not waver” from an “action-for-action” policy that demands concrete political reforms in return for easing of U.S. sanctions.
It’s a justifiable and admirable concern. The problem is that, despite the voices of Congressman Crowley—a longtime leader in defense of human rights in Burma—the co-sponsor of the ban extension, Representative Peter King (R–NY), and an emerging generation of leaders on this issue led by Congressman Trent Franks (R–AZ), “action for action” is a thing of the past.
The Administration, in consultation with congressional leadership, has moved from “action for action” to “action and hope for the best.” It has removed, suspended, or otherwise eased sanctions on Burma across the board. But instead of calibrating these rewards in response to actual reforms, in an effort to impact Burma’s domestic political balance, it has taken to preemptively rewarding the reformers themselves.
This makes subjective judgments about personalities and Burmese politics more important than developments on the ground. In fact, taken to its logical conclusion, a policy focused on political dynamics effectively divorces policy from performance. What matters most in such an approach—even if reforms stall or reverse—is support for the good guys and the ability of our diplomats to recognize them.
The renewal of import restrictions—if it proceeds (there are indications from the Senate that it may not)—is inoperative. There is an understanding between Congress and the Administration that the restrictions on imports be waived. They want to do away with the ban but in a way that theoretically gives the Administration the authority to re-impose it. Theoretically, because it is not clear at all what would constitute cause for re-imposition. If the ban is not extended by Congress, re-imposition becomes even more theoretical.
The Administration, congressional leadership, and former stalwart defenders of liberty in Burma moved too quickly to reach consensus on relaxing this sanction and others, including the investment ban, which has proceeded under a similar agreement. Yet, even in the face of reports of what Human Rights Watch calls “ethnic cleansing,” the Administration is looking to up the ante. Formal notification has been given to make Burma a beneficiary of tariff breaks under the Generalized System of Preferences program. The Administration has also initiated discussions with Congress on opening channels of military-to-military engagement and assistance.
It is here, military-to-military relations, where Congress may finally draw the line. The pushback on the Administration’s plans has been stronger than expected, and efforts are underway in both houses to legally prevent or severely condition any engagement of the Burmese military.
Given growing congressional resistance to ever deepening engagement with Burma, it is possible that Thein Sein’s visit to Washington will mark the peak of “action and hope for the best.” The Administration has not gotten to this point of accommodation with the regime in Burma on its own. It will take robust congressional leadership to help it acknowledge its shortcomings and craft a policy more responsive to the situation on the ground.