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Why Obama is Mad for Myanmar

Did you ever wonder why President Obama and his administration seem to have invested so much time and energy on Myanmar and its transition to democracy?

It's a question I had been thinking about.  So I decided to explore it in my most recent column for The Edge Review.  What I decided was that there were political, economic nd strategic reasons for the administration focus on Myanmar -- much to do with Obama's rebalancing, or "pivot," to Asia.  But there are other considerations as well, which I lay out in my column.

Here's what I wrote for The Edge Review, and I invite your thoughts in the comments section below.

©The Edge Review

By Keith B. Richburg

HO CHI MINH CITY

 

Myanmar might at first glance seem a rather curious place for the Obama administration to be investing so much of its diplomatic energy.

 

Most Americans could probably not even find Myanmar on a map — and the few who could would likely refer to it by its more common, previous name; Burma.  There are no particular American historic or cultural links to the Burma, a longtime British colony that spent decades as a closed and isolated military dictatorship.  Before Obama’s 2012 trip, no American president had ever set foot there.  When Hillary Clinton first went, in 2011, she was the first secretary of state to visit there since John Foster Dulles during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 

But now Obama has been there twice, and, more importantly, has invested a good deal of his rapidly diminishing political capital in making sure Myanmar’s rocky transition to democracy stays on track.  In a rapid-fire burst of initiatives, he has eased economic sanctions on Myanmar, lifted most investment restrictions on American companies, dispatched a host of top U.S. officials, and pushed to rekindle military-to-military ties suspended after Burma’s bloody 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

 

In addition, during his recently-concluded eight-day Asia tour, Obama added another sweetener to the growing relationship between Washington and Naypyidaw; setting up an American Peace Corps program, with the first volunteers to arrive in 2015.

 

Some Obama critics in the U.S., including members of Congress from both sides, as well as human rights activists, are saying the administration’s new embrace of Myanmar has been too fast, and without much to show for the effort.  By allowing a presidential visit so soon — two visits, in fact — the U.S. has given up all its leverage, or so this argument goes.

 

In addition, the world right now seems to have no shortage of crises — Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the ruthless march of the Islamic State across large swarths of Syria and Northern Iraq, China’s territorial aggressiveness in the South China Sea, and economic stagnation in Europe.   Some have suggested Obama and his officials are being distracted by a country that is, at most, of marginal importance to the U.S.

 

“The focus on Myanmar has not only delivered few strategic benefits but also distracted U.S. leaders’ time and attention from other important regions and issues in Asia,” wrote Josh Kurlantzick, the senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

 

Pointing out that since the lifting of restrictions, U.S. companies have invested ten times more in tiny Luxembourg as they have in struggling Myanmar, Kurlantzick argues that U.S. officials should have spent more time pushing the benefits of the Pacific free trade agreement than spending precious time and energy lobbying congresspeople to lift military sanctions on the government in Naypyidaw.

 

So what gives with the administration’s preoccupation with Burma these days?  And is it a distraction of presidential attention, which is desperately needed elsewhere?

 

First, let’s look at the question “what gives?” For me, it’s about strategy in Asia, and about economics, certainly — those are the obvious points.  But it’s also about politics.  And I mean politics internationally, but also domestically.

 

On strategy, the focus on Myanmar is part of Obama’s announced but still unfulfilled “pivot,” or strategic rebalancing, to the Asia-Pacific region.  Since taking office and, in 2009, styling himself “America’s first Pacific president,” Obama has longed to extricate himself from President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the larger Middle East in general, and put more U.S. time and attention into this dynamic, rapidly growing part of the world.

 

Of course there’s another big player on the Pacific stage — that would be China — which is also trying to expand its interests in the region. China is offering sweeteners like infrastructure investment loans and construction of high speed rail links, combined with more than a few sticks, like deploying Chinese oil rigs and Naval forces into its neighbors exclusive economic zones.

 

With the Western imposition of sanctions after Burma’s 1988 crackdown — a massacre that presaged China’s own bloody repression of democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square a year later — China pretty much had Burma, and its vast mineral resources, to itself.  But Obama on entering office saw an opportunity to counter Chinese influence in the region by weening Myanmar off Chinese largesse and offering a chance for greater cooperation with America.

 

Looking at Southeast Asia as a geo-strategic chessboard, the U.S. in the past could count on the Philippines, Singapore and, increasingly now, Vietnam.  China could count on Laos, Cambodia and Burma.  The others tried to maintain a delicate balance between the superpowers.  With Myanmar, the Obama administration saw a chance to pull a large country out of China’s orbit and into the pro-U.S. camp.

 

That’s also where the economics play in. U.S. companies were pushing the administration hard for a chance to compete in Myanmar.  There are still a host of hurdles — not least of them, the Myanmar government’s notoriously slow-moving, shadowy decision-making process and the myriad licensing requirements and restrictions.  But a closed country of 50 million potential consumers — not to mention one with untapped oil reserves — has American business salivating.

 

There’s another, larger imperative in the background of the Myanmar engagement.  A top U.S. diplomat involved in the nuclear negotiations with the North Koreans told me exactly two years ago in Beijing that he was able to use the U.S. opening to Myanmar as a template in his talks with the Pyongyang delegation.

 

The message to North Korea, this diplomat told me, was; look how swiftly the Obama administration was able to switch from sanctions and isolations on Myanmar, to engagement and a presidential visit.  If North Korea were willing to renounce its nuclear program and take other reform steps, the Obama administration would be similarly willing to turn on a dime and begin a new relationship with Pyongyang.

 

On the politics of Obama’s engagement with Myanmar, here’s another point; Right now, Southeast Asia’s political systems are tilted away from liberal, open democracies and toward authoritarian systems.  Indonesia and the Philippines are the only real democracies at the moment.  If a huge country like Myanmar were to become an open, liberal, functioning democracy — if they could manage a real election in 2015 that brought the opposition to power — that would tip the regional scales far in favor of the pro-democracy forces.

 

And that brings me back to American domestic politics.  Obama is also focusing on Myanmar, I believe, because it’s one place where U.S. diplomacy still has a chance to make a difference.

 

Obama is in the final two years of his presidency, a veritable lame duck who’s last chance for a legacy is in finding a positive foreign policy victory someplace, anyplace.  He wanted a nuclear deal and an opening with Iran, but the ayatollahs just seem too steeped in their “America is the Great Satan” schtick.  An Israel-Palestinian peace deal?  Good luck with that.  North Korea?  There was a chance for a deal, before Kim Jong-il died, leaving Kim Jong-un who may now need a confrontation to show his mettle.

 

What’s he left with? Bombing ISIS into submission, making sure Iraq doesn’t fall apart, and making sure the South China Sea doesn’t erupt into a shooting war.

 

If Obama and John Kerry, through sustained American involvement, can help midwife democracy in Myanmar, that would be a positive legacy achievement worth boasting about.

 

I’m not saying it’s going to happen — there are still a lot of obstacles.  But I do think it’s a chance worth taking.

 

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