Despite the attention paid to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy as lacking an “organizing principle,” there wasn’t much new in her interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Mostly the exchange covered issues on which her differences with the president are well known, such as arming the Syrian opposition and supporting Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
This leaves room for Clinton to distance herself from the president on Burma policy, in which she has played a major role, and where optimism about a democratic transition seems increasingly misplaced.
In 2010, Burma’s dictatorship began to take small steps suggesting an interest in reform. Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader, was freed from house arrest. The following year, her party, the National League for Democracy, nearly swept elections to fill 46 seats in parliament, gaining a toehold in the body. Political prisoners were released, albeit slowly and conditionally. Burma’s press began to operate more freely, and pre-publication censorship was ended.
Undeniably, the United States needed to respond. The Obama administration, however, went too far too fast, restoring full diplomatic ties, lifting most economic sanctions, and exchanging presidential visits before vital constitutional changes and military reforms were undertaken. Business flocked to gauge investment prospects. Suddenly, it was hard to get a hotel room in Rangoon.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Burma has regressed. Press freedom has chilled. Burma’s notorious military is still fighting ethnic minorities. Violence and bigotry against Burma’s Rohingya and other Muslims, led and stoked by some monks, is tolerated by the regime and, it must be said, much of Burmese society. Land seizures have increased, as have arrests of farmers and land rights activists. Burma will hold national elections in 2015, but under the current military-drafted constitution, they won’t be free and fair. One provision bars Suu Kyi from running, and another gives the unreformed military a large presence in parliament.
Still, the administration remains unaccountably upbeat. Sure, officials make caveats, but the message of self-congratulation is clear. In June, the president told graduating cadets at West Point, “If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot. American leadership.” This was a monumental gaffe considering the regime’s long history of violence against its citizens. President Obama’s scheduled visit to Burma in November provides another opportunity for the administration to adjust its policy to Burma’s circumstances.
The Obama administration used Suu Kyi’s support to justify lifting major sanctions, but now seems to have much less time for her. On his visit to Burma in early August, the Irrawaddy magazine reported that Secretary of State John Kerry “kept Suu Kyi waiting at her Rangoon home well into the night because he was busy all day in [the political capital] Naypyidaw, talking with the president and other government officials.”
In her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton makes much of a bond she says she forged with Suu Kyi in the former’s kitchen in Washington and the latter’s home, the site of her nearly two decades under house arrest. Now Suu Kyi needs her friend to press hard for a tough U.S. line if the Burmese government fails to make changes to ensure the integrity of the 2015 elections and reverse the backsliding on press freedom.
Hillary Clinton recognizes Burma’s “outsized” strategic importance. A “meaningful reform process,” she writes, “would be a milestone of our pivot strategy, give a boost to democracy and human rights activists across Asia and beyond, and provide a rebuke to authoritarian government. If we failed, however, it could have the opposite effect.” That is quite right. Burma’s approximately 55 million people welcome a U.S. and European presence as a counterweight to neighboring China. And they see pressure from Western countries as essential to helping draw their government toward the rule of law and political and civil liberties and away from corruption.
The Obama administration is eager to declare Burma a success and upgrade ties with its unreformed military. To do so before a free and fair election ushers in a civilian government in 2015 would betray the Burmese and upend decades of bipartisan American policy.
Hillary Clinton’s comments on the threats America faces in the Middle East suggest she is preparing a run for president. A presidential candidate needs a coherent foreign policy strategy. Burma provides the perfect test of hers.