The Magazine

A Tangled Webb in Burma

Born appeasing.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, has taken a real interest in the Obama administration's approach to dealing with Burma's military junta. Earlier this year, he placed a "hold" on the nomination of now-confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell--an uncontroversial pick with bipartisan support--that was so strong a North Korean nuclear detonation couldn't break it. According to a source familiar with the confirmation process, it was only after multiple, pleading calls from Secretary of State Clinton that Webb was finally convinced to allow the nomination to move forward in late June.

As Webb made clear at Campbell's confirmation hearing, during which he quizzed Campbell for 15 minutes on 2010 "elections" in Burma and the role of sanctions in penalizing this brutal regime, he views these planned elections as a potential opening for Burma's democracy movement, and he believes U.S. sanctions have been ineffective.

If Webb was trying to get some concession from Clinton in exchange for releasing his hold on the Campbell nomination, the evidence that he succeeded might be found in Clinton's statements a month later, when she attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations security conference in Thailand. There Clinton made news when she talked of the possibility that the United States might "expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma." This was a major shift for Clinton, who as a senator had never objected to the annual and routine reauthorization of sanctions against Burma in the Senate by unanimous consent.

So rather than take on town hall protesters in Virginia during the August recess, Webb used his break to conduct a tour of Asia, where he gained headlines for his foray into Burma or, as that country's military junta and Webb call it, Myanmar. There, Webb was the first U.S. official ever to meet with the country's reclusive supreme leader, General Than Shwe.

Webb was also granted special permission to visit Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the last 20 years confined in her home by a regime that is in a bitter fight with North Korea for the title of most repressive in the world. She is kept virtually incommunicado and was recently convicted of sheltering John Yettaw, an American who was arrested after a bizarre attempt to contact Suu Kyi by swimming to her lakefront home. This new conviction has earned Aung San Suu Kyi at least another 18 months of confinement. Webb scored a coup of sorts when Yettaw was allowed to leave the country with him.

Believing that Burma could be coaxed out of its self-imposed isolation through economic and political engagement, Webb stated in a follow-up press conference (one of at least three) that it was his "clear impression from [Suu Kyi] that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions" and that "there would be some areas she would be willing to look at."

This statement shocked and outraged members of Burma's democracy movement, as it seemed to reflect a major shift for Suu Kyi, who is barred from meeting with anyone except her doctor and a lawyer. Suu Kyi's attorney, Nyan Win, was dispatched to get a straight answer and blasted out this reply: "She replied that she had not discussed the issue [sanctions] with anyone recently."

Did she or didn't she? Webb has been strangely quiet ever since. A press aide said Webb's comments in Burma were a "careful, respectful statement based on their conversation, and there's no need to say anything further." One Burma watcher said, however, that it was the first time in two decades that he could remember Suu Kyi issuing a statement clarifying what she said--or in this case, hadn't said.

And those "elections" Webb has so much faith in? They would take place under a "constitution" that was adopted in May 2008--just days after a cyclone that killed thousands of Burmese--and permanently enshrines military rule. According to the Burmese junta's official figures, despite the country's being devastated by the worst cyclone in its history, turnout for the 2008 constitutional referendum was 98 percent, with a whopping 93 percent in favor of the constitution.

Webb once wrote a book called Born Fighting. But when it comes to the long-suffering people of Burma, he doesn't seem to have much fight in him.

Michael Goldfarb is online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.