The Cable

Obama set to appoint America’s first special envoy to Burma

The Cable has confirmed that President Barack Obama is set to appoint Derek Mitchell as the first U.S. special envoy to Burma. Mitchell, a well-respected Asia hand who was a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs under Assistant Secretary Gen. ...

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The Cable has confirmed that President Barack Obama is set to appoint Derek Mitchell as the first U.S. special envoy to Burma.

Mitchell, a well-respected Asia hand who was a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs under Assistant Secretary Gen. Chip Gregson, who will soon be departing himself. Previously, Mitchell worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with Kurt Campbell, who is now the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Campbell has been handling the Burma portfolio at the State Department since 2009.

The special envoy position was required by Congress in the 2008 JADE Act, the bill meant to prevent Burmese gem exports to the United States, which was led by the late House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos. President George W. Bush actually did appoint someone for the job, former NSC Senior Director for Asia Mike Green.

But Green saw his nomination languish at the end of the Bush administration. It then met its end in 2009, when then Senate Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) refused to move it forward pending an unspecified favor from the White House that she did not get. Ironically, Boxer and three other senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week to ask her to appoint a new Burma special envoy.

Mitchell and Green coauthored an article on Burma in Foreign Affairs in 2007, where they called on the international community to reinvigorate its interest in the plight of the Burmese people. Green, now a professor at Georgetown University, praised Mitchell’s selection in an interview with The Cable.

“He would be excellent in this position,” Green said. “Derek has met Aung San Suu Kyi and knows all the regional players, including China and India. He also knows the interagency well and has a balanced and strategic view of the issue.”

Another rumored contender for the job was Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, who also told The Cable that Mitchell is a good choice.

“I think Derek is a great pick for the job. He has a long standing commitment to the issue. He’s in the administration. He’ll likely be a very effective player. He’s broadly respected within the administration and throughout the community,” Malinowski said.

But Malinowski also said that the substance of the administration’s Burma policy is more important than the identity of the person implementing it. He feels Burma has fallen through the cracks in terms of the administration’s focus and attention.

“The Burmese had the misfortune of rising up and braving gunfire for democracy before this administration came to office, and therefore there isn’t as much of an urgent or intense effort now to help them,” he said. “I hope that Derek’s appointment is a sign that’s going to change, even if the Burmese people don’t once again get themselves shot demonstrating.”

The State Department, led by Campbell, did craft a new Burma policy that called for limited engagement with the brutal regime while keeping sanctions in place. Campbell traveled to Burma twice. The other most active public official on Burma, Senate Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee chair Jim Webb (D-VA) has been there once.

The administration’s idea was to feel out Burmese leaders in order to make incremental progress leading up to the November 2010 elections. But those elections were marred by the sort of vote rigging, intimidation, and outright violence that the Burmese junta is known for. The elections were condemned by the international community, including the United States.

The failure of the junta to make any real effort to answer the United States’ call for cooperation and dialogue poses a problem for the Obama administration’s policy of engagement.

“I would say the administration has been realistic about the nature of the so-called ‘election,'” said Green. “They recognize that the junta is actually consolidating power in many areas, privatizing state assets to fill their own pockets, and marginalizing the handful of ‘Third Wave’ candidates that were supposed to be independent voices in the parliament.”

An administration official told The Cable that the U.S. government is clear eyed on the junta’s behavior but will continue to try to find ways to move forward the policy.

“The U.S. government acknowledged that this was a fundamentally flawed election based on a corrupt constitution, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t ready to reengage in dialogue,” the official said. “But we will be very clear what our expectations are and we will be extremely tough on both non-proliferation and human rights.”

Mitchell, who four independent sources confirmed would be appointed as the special envoy, declined to comment for this story.

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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