AFP reports that on his way out of town, George W. Bush has decided to leave a legacy in Burma by appointing Michael Green to a new special envoy post.
If confirmed by the US Senate, Green “will serve as our main interlocutor with other countries and organizations as we attempt to help the Burmese people,” said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Green, who has served as senior director for Asian Affairs on Bush’s national security council, is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University and holds the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
The post was created by the US Congress with an eye on increasing pressure on the military junta that rules Myanmar.
This may at first glance suggest a neo-con maneuver to put personnel in place to pursue a Bush-era foreign policy into the next administration, but in fact it’s probably not so partisan. True, Green is definitely on the hawkish side of the democracy promotion issue, and he’s for a stronger stance of backing Japan against China. He’s written that the US should demand more concessions from North Korea on the Japanese abductee issue before taking Pyongyang off the state sponsors of terrorism list. In a piece published in late 2007, he took the unusual position that “democracy promotion, which is languishing in the Iraq and Middle East context…has quietly been a success story in Asia.” (Larry Diamond and most of those looking at Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Cambodia at that point — to say nothing of Vietnam, China, Laos and Burma — were drawing the opposite conclusion. When you add in Indonesia and Malaysia, the picture is at best mixed.)
Still, Green is no John Bolton, and reading his and Derek Mitchell’s November 2007 piece in Foreign Affairs on the Burma question is revealing. Green clearly wants to take some kind of tougher, more dramatic line against the SPDC, something that will move the situation past the ugly stalemate it’s been in for over 15 years now. “A decade later,” he writes, “the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle.” But Green knows East Asia, he understands the reality on the ground, and he’s not about to make ludicrous policy recommendations that have no chance of succeeding. So what does he come up with? Weak tea:
All parties with a stake in its resolution need to adjust their positions and start coordinating their approach to the problem. Although this may seem like an unlikely proposition, it has more potential today than ever before. Burma’s neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.
Green winds up calling for all the concerned parties to construct a road map to reform in Burma. And this is about as far as a serious area expert with certain neo-connish tendencies can go on the Burma issue. Burma is not Serbia, and ASEAN is not the EU, let alone NATO. The fact is, there’s very little the US or anyone can do about Burma except try to keep our hands clean and wait for the SPDC’s senior leadership to die. In Southeast Asia, our tea, whether Democratic or Republican, is weak, and there is little anyone can do to change that.
Update: To be clear about what I wrote above, I don’t think Green is a “neocon and hawk”; from what I’ve read that seems much too harsh a description. Rather, I think just what I said: he wants a clearer US shift towards Japan where there are conflicts between Japan and China, he wants a North Korea policy that is less conciliatory and takes Japanese abductee concerns more seriously, he wants a stronger democracy-promotion agenda, and he wants some kind of strong action to push Burma towards human rights reforms. I’d characterize these as “neo-connish tendencies”. I think he’s wrong, and outside the mainstream, when he argues that democracy promotion is a big success in Asia, and I think he’s misguided to claim that Burma’s neighbors now clearly recognize that the repressiveness of the regime has become a regional security threat and requires group action. I think their discomfort with Burma, while real, is much more modest, and their aversion to interfering in a neighbor’s internal politics far outweighs that discomfort. And I am not really “disappointed” with the US’s weakness; I just think it’s telling that the limits of US and European power in SE Asia are so obvious that even someone like Green who greatly desires strong action on Burma is unable to come up with anything more dramatic than a call for a coordinated road map towards progress.
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