Will the new Burma envoy focus on engagement or sanctions?
The Obama administration is getting ready to select a new special envoy to Burma, who if confirmed could take up his post just after the Burmese junta holds elections the administration has already said won’t be legitimate. An administration official told The Cable, "The Department of State is reviewing several candidates now and will be ...
The Obama administration is getting ready to select a new special envoy to Burma, who if confirmed could take up his post just after the Burmese junta holds elections the administration has already said won’t be legitimate.
An administration official told The Cable, "The Department of State is reviewing several candidates now and will be in consultation shortly with Capitol Hill on the pick to be selected." The current list contains several names, and State is looking at established diplomats, former policymakers, think tank wonks, those with experience on Capitol Hill, etc., the official said.
It’s been seven months since the Obama administration announced its new Burma policy, which calls for limited engagement with the brutal regime while keeping sanctions in place. The leading player on Burma policy, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, has been to the country twice in his current role. The other most active public official on Burma, Senate Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee chair Jim Webb, D-VA, has gone once.
The idea was to feel out Burmese leaders to try to make incremental progress leading up to the upcoming elections later this year that a future special envoy could build on. But none of that seems to be happening, and Campbell acknowledged upon leaving Burma May 10 that the elections are likely to be a farce.
"What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy," Campbell said following his last visit.
Webb canceled his recently planned trip altogether, only days after a leaked U.N. report was said to accuse North Korea of using several countries and companies, including those in Burma, to export nuclear and missile technology.
The current administration thinking is to lay low until after the elections and then try to reengage with the Burmese regime after that. They calculate that putting the election in the rearview mirror will eliminate it as a source of contention.
"What’s happened inside the country is that they’re completely focused on this upcoming exercise that they are calling an election," the administration official said. "Our best opportunities for some form of engagement will come after the elections, even though we don’t believe they are credible."
Experts point out that even after the election, the issue of Burma’s suspected nuclear cooperation with North Korea will remain.
"The administration has not denied that there are serious transactions between Burma and North Korea that are troubling," said Michael Green, former National Security Council senior director for Asia and President George W. Bush’s nominee for special envoy to Burma. "In the midst of this engagement from the Obama administration, the junta just went ahead on these kinds of deals."
The administration, led by Campbell, approached the Burmese government last year with a set of requests: for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to be released, for the government to reach out in some way to ethnic minorities groups, and for a reduction in government-sponsored violence.
"State was ought there on a limb, but they thought if they could get something concrete from the junta they could justify further engagement," said Green. "But the fact is they got nothing, nada."
Green said he is out of the running for envoy, having seen his nomination languish at the end of the Bush administration and then meet its end in 2009 when then-subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-CA, refused to move it forward pending an unspecified favor from the White House that she did not get.
Everybody liked Green, but the Obama team needs its own person for the job — someone who can quietly probe for diplomatic openings while avoiding negative blowback from Capitol Hill.
And therein lies the rub. Senators, especially Republican senators, will want an envoy whose focus is on enforcing existing sanctions against Burma. The State Department needs someone who can continue the engagement track.
"There’s an anomaly in the situation," said one longtime Washington Burma hand. "The legislation very clearly calls for senatorial approval. But the legislation also talks about direct engagement with the Burmese."
Webb wrote June 8 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "strongly recommend" Eric John, the current U.S. ambassador to Thailand, who had some experience dealing with North Korea when he was a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
But John’s one noted interaction with the Burmese junta, in Beijing in June 2006, didn’t produce any results. Also, some privately question his handling of the Bangkok embassy during the recent period of severe political unrest there.
The administration will have to keep an eye on Webb, a key senator in this issue, as the envoy selection process finishes up. Officials would also be wise to keep an eye on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Sam Brownback, R-KS, both of whom are sure to want to have a say in this debate because of their keen interest in both North Korean proliferation and human rights.
Overall, the administration will have to decide what else it can do to persuade Burma’s leaders to clean up their act — and whether further sanctions may be warranted.
"We’ve done certain things and they’ve done certain things, but neither is sufficient from either point of view," the Burma hand said. "So we’re in a deadlock."
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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