In recent weeks, Virginia Senator Jim Webb has ignited a fierce controversy over U.S. engagement with
Burma while the Obama administration is still debating its policy toward the
thuggish, isolated Southeast Asian state.
Webb, a Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan and a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, has
plenty of critics, who portray him as a military man distrustful of diplomats
and politicians alike. But Webb, who chairs the formerly sleepy Senate Foreign
Relations Asia subcommittee, is nonetheless a one-man blur of diplomatic
activity, and Asia hands are taking notice. Many, however, see him as a bull in
a China shop, gallivanting around Asia upsetting the delicate balance the Washington
foreign-policy establishment is working to maintain.
Webb's supporters point out that his extensive Asia
experience goes back decades and his diplomatic activism is based on his
historical perspective and his independent connections there.
Webb's five-nation tour of Southeast Asia last month made
huge news; he was the highest-level U.S. official in years to meet with the leaders of Burma's
reclusive military junta and he had a private meeting with Burmese
democracy icon Aung
San Suu Kyi. The fallout from Webb's trip has reinvigorated the
Washington debate over Burma policy, centered around Webb's controversial push to
engage the brutal Burmese dictatorship, which he says should include
consideration of easing sanctions.
The pushback against Webb's initiative has been severe,
driven by a loose alliance of democracy advocates, former Bush administration
officials, and a segment of the neoconservative intellectual brain trust.
In an exclusive interview with The Cable, Webb
defended his stance on Burma and sought to correct the record on a number of
rumors and reports about what actually happened when he traveled there.
First, Webb stood by statements he made in a Thailand press conference, when he said
that Suu Kyi had told him she was open to the idea of lifting some sanctions
against the military government now holding her captive and that she has spent much of her life fighting.
"The statements that I have made about her or the
discussions that we had are my best attempt to show respect to her situation,"
said Webb, "It was my distinct impression from the conversation that she would
not be opposed to lifting some of the sanctions."
Immediately after Webb's trip, Suu Kyi's lawyer Nyan Win, who is also a spokesman for her National
League for Democracy party, told the Irrawaddy newspaper, an expatriate
publication based in Thailand that is critical of the junta, that she hadn't
endorsed lifting any sanctions and that she favored working internally with the
government led by senior General Than Shwe, whom Webb
also met with.
"Only the people who
were in the meeting know what was said," retorted Webb.
Webb also flatly denied several points made
in a scathing Weekly Standard article
entitled "A Tangled Webb in Burma." The magazine, run by neoconservative thought leader William Kristol, has been hammering
Webb on a constant basis by running critical stories and blog
posts on its Web site, run by former McCain campaign staffer Michael Goldfarb.
For example, Webb never placed a hold on
the nomination of Kurt Campbell to
be assistant secretary of state for East Asia, as the story claims, he said.
The delay in moving the nomination was due to the need to thoroughly examine
Campbell's business dealings related to StratAsia, the
consulting firm he founded with Bush administration NSC Asia director Michael
Nor, says Webb, did he in fact finally
relent on the Campbell nomination after "multiple, pleading calls" from Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, as the article alleges, adding that Clinton played no role in
Webb's trip to Burma.
In her own trip to Thailand for an Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in July, Clinton had hinted that
the United States might "expand our relationship with Burma, including
investments in Burma," leading some observers to speculate that the
secretary might share some of Webb's controversial views.
Webb swatted such speculations away. "Hillary
Clinton has neither helped not hindered me on this," said Webb, "She has never in
any way opened up a door with me on this issue or helped to shut a door."
"If we had relied on the State Department,
we wouldn't have gotten the meetings that we got, quite frankly," he added.
What is much harder to deny is that leaders
of the Burmese democracy movement were extremely upset with Webb's talk
of lifting sanctions, taking to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to criticize his
actions and calling them "damaging to our democracy movement."
But Webb said engagement of the Burmese
government is needed to combat growing Chinese influence there, has the best shot
of opening up Burma through economic penetration, and besides, he argues, the
sanctions haven't worked.
"Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase
its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous
strategic imbalance in the region," Webb wrote in the New
York Times. (The senator's use of the name "Myanmar" is itself
controversial, as it is the name chosen by the junta in 1989 and is rejected by
many Burmese opposition groups and ethnic minorities.)
One former senior official told The Cable that Webb
was planting the seeds of discord between the United States and some Southeast Asia
allies by giving false hope about what the U.S. government might be willing to
do in terms of altering its Burma policies.
Webb has gotten far ahead of the administration's ongoing
comprehensive policy review, which is expected soon, the official said.
Webb rejected that criticism, telling The Cable that he was clear with his interlocutors about his role
in the U.S. government and besides, as a senator it's not his job to work on behalf
of the administration.
Another worry, the former senior official said, is that
Webb's approach gave too much legitimacy to the junta and sent the wrong
message to that whole region, namely that the U.S. was moving away from promoting
democracy and human rights, and was growing more willing to support bad actors
and less committed to supporting civic reformers.
"Burma is a proxy fight in Asia as for which of these
divisions in ASEAN will be the future," the official said."
Webb's support for the 2010 Burmese elections, which all but the most
optimistic observers feel will be far from fair, will only serve to cement the
new Burmese constitution, which enshrines military rule, according to the
"Political realism is, you try to take what you can get and
build on it," Webb responded, "If we develop relationships, we can improve the
environment under which the elections are held."
Some Asia policy hands reject Webb's contention that
engaging the Burmese junta is necessary to combat growing Chinese influence
there. Burma has never been a Chinese client state, one expert said, and China's
dollar diplomacy in Burma isn't reason enough to warrant America sacrificing
its commitment to core values.
"We will never be mercantilist and cynical enough to
beat the Chinese at their own game," said the expert, "It's a winning strategy
to focus on democracy and human rights."
In recent weeks, Beijing has expressed
some displeasure over the Burmese government's ongoing fight with restive
minority groups in its eastern regions, and the resulting instability has sent
thousands of refugees streaming into China.
Georgetown University professor David Steinberg defended Webb in a recent Asia Times article, saying that Burmese democracy
advocates "miss the point of Webb's
"Webb has started a process that is important. Where it will
go, we don't know," said Steinberg, "We know what will happen if the policy of
isolation will continue ... nothing."
Inside the U.S. government, different parts of the
administration have different views on how to handle Burma. The uniformed
military is "value-neutral," one source said, meaning they generally see
benefits in engaging with other militaries.
But new Obama civilian Pentagon officials such as principal Deputy
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Derek Mitchell and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for
East Asia Michael Schiffer have
their own well-formed Burma ideas.
Mitchell and Green,
the Bush-era NSC official, penned an article in Foreign Affairs in 2007 arguing
the junta should be engaged, but only in conjunction and coordination with
regional allies and only after the release of Suu Kyi.
What's unknown is where Hillary Clinton and ultimately
President Barack Obama come down on
how to deal with Burma. Clinton has hinted that the
administration review could recommend some change on sanctions.
The results of that review, which is being led by Campbell
and the deputy assistant secretary responsible for Southeast Asia, Scot Marciel, are expected any time now.
The position of special envoy to Burma is also vacant. Green
was nominated by George W. Bush for
the job in the twilight of his second term, but the clock ran out on that
administration before he was confirmed.
The Obama team was inclined to let the Green nomination go
through as an olive branch to the McCain campaign (for which Green was an
advisor). But then-subcommittee chairwoman Barbara
Boxer, D-CA, scuttled the idea because her demand for a favor from Vice President
Joseph Biden in exchange for her
acquiescence was rejected, sources said.
No new envoy has been nominated, but sources said that
Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski is a top
contender. Malinowski, who was reportedly in the running to head the Democracy,
Rights, and Labor bureau at the State Department but ran into snags over
whether he was considered a "lobbyist" under the administration's disclosure
rules, penned an op-ed in 2006 entitled, "Call Cruelty What It Is," which compared Bush administration interrogation practices
with those of Stalin.
Webb plans to hold a hearing on Burma, to be scheduled for October, according to an aide.
Photo of Webb's press conference in Thailand by AFP/Getty Images