By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
for Asia Times, February 29, 1997
When the United States made good on its threat to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar last week, was it a bold and courageous move to stand up unilaterally in favor of democracy and human rights? Or was it a bit of political stunt-flying done for domestic applause, that may end up crashing to the ground?
The advocates of sanctions say it was the former. American foreign policy, they argue, should be fundamentally guided by moral concerns. As the world's only superpower, Washington has the obligation to set the tone for international relations and promote freedom throughout the world. To back down from that obligation would be to trivialize America's role in global affairs. The United States, they say, should always side with those struggling for democracy and human rights.
But the counter-argument is that American foreign policy-makers should be pragmatic in the pursuit of American interests abroad. If Washington conducts foreign policy along human rights lines rather than hard-headed realpolitik, it will inevitably get bogged down in self-defeating confusion. Every other country in the world is pursuing its own interests in foreign affairs, the pragmatists argue. If the United States fails to, it will inevitably find itself isolated and ineffectual on the global stage, thereby lessening its power and influence.
That's exactly what has happened in US policy towards Myanmar. President Bill Clinton's failure to establish a clear and decisive foreign policy in his first term created a vacuum -- and Washington abhors a political vacuum. In rushed politicians and interest groups, each pursuing their own agenda. For Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the de facto leader of the pro-sanctions movement, Myanmar presented a wonderful opportunity to embarass the Democratic Clinton administration by protraying it as 'soft' on authoritarian regimes.
"McConnell doesn't really care about human rights in Burma," one political analyst in Washington told me recently. "He just hates Clinton, and wants to hold his feet to the fire -- and win a few political points for the Republicans."
And in the end, it was the realities of domestic politics that forced the sanctions decision. The original, and much tougher, legislation introduced by McConnell in late 1995 was supplanted last year by the milder Cohen-Feinstein amendment, allowing -- but not requiring -- Clinton to impose a ban on new investment in the event of continued political repression in Myanmar. McConnell and other Republicans stepped up their pressure to impose sanctions this year, and were threatening to withhold support in the Senate for key bills that Clinton wanted passed. Moreover, they were preparing sanctions legislation that would not only be tougher than the Cohen-Feinstein bill, but would be mandatory.
That put Clinton in a bind. He knew that the sanctions would have no real effect on Myanmar, since American investment there is negligible. The pro-democracy movement would receive a momentary boost in morale, but the sanctions would reduce American influence in Yangon to nothing and alienate the member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations, which are preparing to welcome Myanmar into the group. Moreover, they would impede Washington's ability to control heroin production in the region, and to help the pro-democracy movement. In short, sanctions would completely sideline the United States as a player in Myanmar.
So why pursue a self-defeating policy? In the end, it came down to political horse-trading. McConnell was intent on sanctions, and Clinton needed his support in the Senate. According to sources in Washington, the crunch came at last week's Senate vote on the Chemical Weapons Convention. This was something that Clinton badly wanted, and he needed to make sure that McConnell was on board. Weighing the pro's and con's, Clinton made a last-minute political decision to sacrifice Myanmar. The White House leaked the decision in time for McConnell to get the news before the crucial vote.
Sen. Mitch McconnellThat's why, when Clinton made the official announcement, he still didn't have the executive order implementing the decision. (The State Department had its own spin on that, of course. When asked why the administration was in such a rush, spokesman Nicholas Burns said that it was "important to announce [the decison] to send a signal to the Burmese." Ah.)
So what happens next? The sanctions probably won't have a discernible effect on the Myanmar economy, where most new US investment (outside of the oil and gas industries) has been coming through the British Virgin Islands for the past two years anyway. The military State Law and Order Restoration Council that runs Myanmar according to its own rules, and is shrugging off the US move. And if past actions are an indication of the future, it may find some way to retaliate against the US move -- although what move it might take is still anybody's guess.
In Washington, meanwhile, McConnell will continue to use the Myanmar to harass Clinton, and will probably press for more sanctions, including withdrawal of already-committed investment and a ban on travel by US citizens to Myanmar. If those measures are imposed, tit-for-tat measures could escalate, compounded by resentment from the ASEAN countries at US heavy-handedness in the region. Meanwhile, the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi remains yoked to a policy whose aim is to undermine the economy -- not a popular political goal anywhere in the world, and one that is costing her support in Myanmar, and has already led to a split in her party over the issue.
So did America really stand up bravely for democracy and human rights? Actually, as Secretary of State Madelaine Albright admitted, the administration had simply done what was politically expedient.
When asked why the administration had imposed sanctions on Myanmar but not on China (which has a very poor human rights record), she said America needed to have "a flexible approach [to human rights violations] depending upon what our national interests are, and we have to understand where we have strategic relationships that require us to take a different approach."
As in the corridors of Congress, for example?