Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Burma tortures American citizen as US meetings with Myanmar begin

The titles of these Jotman blog posts give you a gist of the story.

09.26 (2007 uprising anniversary) -  "Three heroes, one day in Rangoon."
09.27 (2007 uprising anniversary) - "2 years ago today in Rangoon"

What was the Obama Administration thinking?  Why did the US remain headstrong in its determination to initiate meetings with Burma, given that it knew -- full well -- that Kyaw Zaw Lwin (also known as Nyi Nyi Aung), an American citizen, was being tortured in a jail cell in Rangoon?   Why start the talks? 

Timing doesn't get much worse than this.

Monday, U.S.Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said, "Let's be clear, the president's decision to approach countries with an open hand and open up a dialogue with them is a powerful tool, at least in the initial state of opening up contacts...."  (my translation from the press conference video).  The remark struck me when I heard it, watching a CSPAN video of the press conference.   Immediately I went about transcribing the comment.  I then put the quote at the top of this blog post.    The Assistant Secretary seemed to be saying that the policy of engagement with Burma was happening at the initiative of the White House; and that this approach was integral to the president's approach to foreign policy (something we have known since the campaign).

The decision to open up talks with Burma had probably not been made mainly on the basis of the State Department's own analysis of the situation and its recommendations.  It looks to me like a case -- of course it happened all too frequently in the past -- where a "one size fits all" policy directive is forced on the State Department.   Yet another situation in which the opinions of regional experts are overlooked.  (Arguably, just about every major foreign policy disaster since the Second World War can  be traced back to an obstinate mindset.)

Unless Nyi Nyi Aung is released within a few days of the start of talks in New York between Assistant Secretary Campbell and U Thaung, Myanmar's minister of science,  this episode could prove a disgrace for the Obama Administration.  

We have every reason to suspect that Obama's overall philosophy of initiating engagement, not local contingencies seem to have driven US policy towards Burma. Realization that the Obama Administration opened negotiations with a rougue state while an American was still being tortured could compromise support for Obama's preferred approach to foreign policy.   This would be a tragedy in my opinion, because even a sound and principled approach is bound to fail if the timing is wrong.
My sense is that Campbell probably knows the timing is bad -- really bad.   But the State Department has been forced to engage.  Perhaps the Obama Administration finds it expedient to move quickly with regards to Burma on account of some other strategy objective, perhaps concerning North Korea, China, or Iran.

In any case, I thought Campbell made it quite clear that a presidential directive was behind the overture to Burma.  I thought it significant that Campbell did not credit his own boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the decision to open up talks with Burma.   I would not want to be given credit for initiating these talks --  not at this time.

Whatever is going on here, Campbell will surely have some more explaining to do tomorrow.   I'll try to keep  you informed of developments as they happen.

Some further thoughts about this case: American citizen tortured by Burma, and his government is speechless

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