Webb’s mission to Burma

August 15, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

aung san suu kyi jim webb 1

You’re not exactly spoilt for choice, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting member of the U.S. Congress than Jim Webb. A decorated Vietnam veteran who still defends the decision to go to war; an outspoken opponent of the invasion of Iraq; a journalist & author; a former Secretary of the Navy; a former Republican and now the Senior Democratic Senator from the traditionally conservative state of Virginia.

But it’s not just Webb’s rich life story which makes him interesting; he’s also won admirers for the kinds of issues he works on. Whilst widely-regarded as conservative, Webb is one of the few politicians to speak out about the vast inequalities of wealth in the United States, even going so far as to speak of ‘class struggle‘. He’s also started trying to raise awareness about America’s broken prisons, and is proposing reforms to the criminal justice system and drug laws which might lead to fewer people rotting away in jails.

But it’s Webb’s mission to Burma which will stand as the most significant moment in the Senator’s short legislative career. As the highest ranking American to visit this vile dictatorship in 10 years, there’ll be much comment in the next few days over what might have been achieved, what could be achieved in the future and what this reveals about the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

The first superficial signs seem positive. The release of Alan Yettaw, the man arrested for trying to meet imprisoned democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, was described by his own lawyer as ‘impossible’ prior to the meeting, and yet he will soon be back on American soil and subject to the barrage of media offers which will follow. Additionally, in meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, Webb achieved what even the U.N. Secretary General has not yet been able to.

But the longer-term consequences are much harder to predict. Just as President Clinton was criticised for having his picture taken with Kim Jong-il, so critics of the Obama administration will claim that this trip threatens to legitimise one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. Exiled Burmese democrats have already warned that the meeting will be manipulated by the military junta for propaganda purposes, and I’m sure they’re right. Furthermore, there does seem to be little ground for compromise with a regime for which brutal suppression of human rights is the primary means of self-preservation.

Yet it’s not entirely clear to me that there was any realistic alternative: successive sanctions regimes have failed, the state remains able to trade with its neighbours and, crucially, the dictatorship retains the quiet support of the Chinese. Also, in the context of President Clinton’s trip to North Korea, a similar outreach to the junta was perhaps inevitable. Given the rumours about Burma’s collusion with the Koreans to obtain a nuclear weapon, it seems sensible for Washington to have at least established some form of diplomatic contact. In the event that Burma did join the nuclear club, the voices for dialogue would suddenly become much louder and more numerous.

At the moment, we can’t see Webb’s visit to Burma as anything other than an experiment which has yielded one small success. It remains to be seen how much further the United States is willing to go to engage with either Burma or North Korea, and whether either of those states will be able to make the kinds of concessions that American diplomacy demands. What is clear, though, is the extent to which the Obama administration is committed to trying the kinds of diplomatic overtures which haven’t been considered by the foreign policy establishment in a very, very long time. With so few alternatives, our only recourse may be to hope that they’re right.


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