Things must be pretty bad in Burma if even Jim Webb won't go there; the Asia-focused Senator from Virginia canceled his planned stopover in the militarized Southeast Asian state, his office announced Thursday.
Webb, who has been active on Asia policy since taking over the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, is one of two representatives of the U.S. government to visit Burma since Obama took office. The other is Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was just in Burma last month. Webb said that new reports about nuclear cooperation between Burma and North Korea, along with Burma's alleged violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring arms trade with North Korea, added up to the wrong environment for a visit.
The U.N. released its new report on North Korea's elicit activities last Friday, which accused the Hermit Kingdom of using several countries and companies, including those in Burma, to export nuclear and missile technology.
"It is unclear whether these allegations have substantive merit ... Until there is further clarification on these matters, I believe it would be unwise and potentially counterproductive for me to visit Burma," Webb said.
He has completed visits to South Korean and Thailand and will now return home to Washington.
Webb went to Burma last August, getting out ahead of the Obama administration's overall policy review, calling for engagement before the White House had settled on its approach to the repressive military government led by Gen. Than Shwe. At that time he met with Burmese junta representatives as well as Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Campbell, the administration's point man on Burma, has visited there twice since Webb's trip and has also met with Suu Kyi and some senior members of the Burmese military regime. He hasn't been impressed; after visiting in May, he declared, "What we have seen to date leads us to believe that [upcoming] elections will lack international legitimacy."
Webb and Campbell are reading from the same sheet of music now, but that wasn't always the case. Asia watchers saw Webb as holding up Campbell's nomination last year (a charge Webb denies) over the administration's reluctance to engage Burma and Webb's concerns over Campbell's consulting activities.
But after some personal mediation by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the release of an administration policy that basically tracks Webb's call for more interaction with both sides, the two personalities are now marching in lockstep. Webb even tried to secure $100 million in extra funding for Campbell's bureau, although that effort ultimately failed.
Webb also called on Obama to appoint a special envoy to Burma Thursday. That's significant because it was Webb's predecessor on the subcommittee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, who prevented the last nominee from assuming the position.
President George W. Bush had nominated former National Security Council Asia Director Mike Green, a friend and former business partner of Campbell's, for the job. But the Senate didn't act before Bush left office and Boxer refused to move the nomination unless she got something in return from the White House.
"I strongly believe that a continuation of dialogue between our two countries is important for the evolution of a more open governmental system and for the future strategic balance in Southeast Asia," Webb said, saying that could only happen when concerns about Burma's cooperation with North Korea are resolved.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.