The Cable

Senators open to lifting sanctions on Myanmar

Over the winter break, several senators from both parties went to Myanmar. They all came back cautiously optimistic about reforms there, and ready to consider lifting some of the sanctions on the country.

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) visited Myanmar earlier this month as part of their whirlwind tour around Southeast Asia, which included stops in the Philippines, Thailand, and the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, the POW camp where McCain was held during the Vietnam War. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) also visited Myanmar over the winter break on separate trips.

The Cable caught up with McCain and Ayotte in the hallways of the Capitol building this week to get their take on developments in Myanmar. Both said they were genuinely impressed by what they saw as the progress toward reform made by President Thein Sein and his administration.

"There's been significant progress, particularly in the release of political prisoners. There are still some more political prisoners but that was a huge step forward," said McCain, comparing his latest visit favorably to his trip to the country last May.

McCain also noted the increasingly positive and constructive relationship between Myanmar's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who will take part of the parliamentary elections in April.

"I'm guardedly optimistic that we are seeing a significant change there," McCain said.

In his statement to the press upon returning to Washington, McCain said the U.S. Congress was committed to begin easing and lifting U.S. sanctions as conditions warrant.

"If you had asked me during my last visit here whether I could envision the Congress lifting all sanctions against this country, I would have said that such a scenario seemed faint and distant. Today, however, it appears increasingly possible," he said. "It is our hope that, with further concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform by the government and people of this great country, our nations will be able to open an entirely new and promising chapter in our relationship."

This was Ayotte's first trip to Myanmar, part of her increasing involvement in foreign policy matters as one of the newest members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I'm increasingly encouraged by the recent progress that they've made," Ayotte told The Cable. The delegation met with Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.

"What we talked about was a roadmap looking forward, if they continue to make progress, of both the Congress and the administration making a roadmap of when we would lift sanctions," she said.

The elections in April need to free and fair, preferably with international monitors, and there needs to be more legislation that institutionalizes the changes in Myanmar, particularly laws that ensure the freedom of assembly, Ayotte said. Also, she said, the rest of the political prisoners need to be released.

Ayotte said Congress must consult with the State Department to coordinate whether lifting congressionally mandated sanctions or executive branch-driven sanctions should be considered first. She also said the new capital city of Naypyidaw was huge and empty.

"When you go up to the new capital, it's surreal, because you've got two ten-lane highways both ways and we were the only car on the highway," she said.

She also said that parliamentary committees in Myanmar have a lot nicer digs than the congressional committees in Washington.

"Every committee would have its own huge building just for the committee. So they've built capacity in the capital that doesn't quite match where they are right now, so that was interesting," she said.

"We're a counterbalance to China," she added. "That's what we heard from the leaders in these countries."

McConnell also praised the progress in Burma in a floor speech this week

""It appears that Burma has made more progress toward democracy in the past six months than it has in decades," he said. "As one who has taken a strong interest in Burma for over 20 years, and as the lead author in this chamber of an annual sanctions bill aimed at encouraging the Burmese government to reform, this is welcome news."

Office of Sen. John McCain

The Cable

Obama embraces Romney advisor's theory on 'The Myth of American Decline'

President Barack Obama is personally enamored with a recent essay written by neoconservative writer Bob Kagan, an advisor to Mitt Romney, in which Kagan argues that the idea the United States is in decline is false.

"The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe," Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. "From the coalitions we've built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we've led against hunger and disease; from the blows we've dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back."

"Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about," Obama said.

Just hours earlier on Tuesday, in an off-the-record meeting with leading news anchors, including ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Brian Williams, Obama drove home that argument using an article written in the New Republic by Kagan titled "The Myth of American Decline."

Obama liked Kagan's article so much that he spent more than 10 minutes talking about it in the meeting, going over its arguments paragraph by paragraph, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to The Cable.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will also discuss Kagan's essay and Obama's love of it Thursday night with Charlie Rose on PBS.

Kagan's article examines and then sets out to debunk each of the arguments that America is in decline, which include commonly held assumptions that America's power and influence are waning due to its economic troubles, the rise of other world powers, the failure of U.S. efforts to solve big problems like the Middle East conflict, and the seeming inability of the U.S. government to tackle problems.

"Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman's latest book, that ‘that used to be us,'" Kagan writes.

But Kagan argues that the United States has gone through several similarly challenging periods in the past and has always managed to rebound and come out ahead. He writes that American decline is a risk, and a dangerous one at that, but by no means is it a foregone conclusion.

"In the end, the decision is in the hands of Americans," he writes. "Decline, as Charles Krauthammer has observed, is a choice. It is not an inevitable fate-at least not yet. Empires and great powers rise and fall, and the only question is when. But the when does matter. Whether the United States begins to decline over the next two decades or not for another two centuries will matter a great deal, both to Americans and to the nature of the world they live in."

For the White House, the Kagan article, and the forthcoming book it's based on, The World America Made, offer the perfect rebuttal to GOP accusations that Obama has willingly presided over a period of American decline or has been "leading from behind" on foreign policy.

Romney hits on this theme often, such as when he said in a December debate, "Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he's president, it's not if I'm president."

In his foreign policy white paper, Romney states clearly that he believes that Obama has resigned himself to American decline.

"A perspective has been gaining currency, including within high councils of the Obama administration, that regards the United States as a power in decline. And not only is the United States regarded as in decline, but that decline is seen as both inexorable and a condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed," the white paper reads.

But as the economy slowly improves, that argument is harder to make, and the Obama campaign is now trying to use Romney's own assessment against him.

"Governor Romney may be rooting for slips and falls here. We're concentrating on moving this economy forward," Obama's political advisor David Axelrod said earlier this month.

The fact that it is Kagan refuting Romney's argument is especially sweet for the White House, because Kagan is a special advisor to the Romney campaign on national security and foreign policy.

Contacted by The Cable, Kagan said he was pleased Obama liked his essay and he is further pleased that Obama is not resigned to an America in decline.

"I think it's important that the president also doesn't see the nation in decline and I hope his policies reflect that and not the idea we should be accommodating American decline as a lot of people are recommending," said Kagan. "I hope he rejects that and still believes we should provide the kind of leadership we are capable of."

Kagan is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post.

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