The State Department's special coordinator for Burma policy, Derek Mitchell, has been chosen to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma, formally known as Myanmar, since 1990.
Mitchell, a well-regarded Asia hand who was a foreign-policy advisor to the Obama campaign, was formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. He was appointed to the new job of Burma envoy last April to lead the implementation of the administration's engagement policy with the Burmese regime. Mitchell also worked previously at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the State Department's lead Asia official and a key architect of the new Burma policy.
Responding to incremental reforms in Burma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January became the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Burma in 50 years and announced that the United States intended to send an ambassador there in the coming months.
On Wednesday, following limited parliamentary elections that swung heavily in favor of the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Clinton announced that the U.S. administration would partially ease some of the sanctions on Burma, easing travel bans on some Burmese officials, recalibrating a ban on investments, and pledging to open up parts of Burma's banking sector to foreign banking services, such as international credit cards.
"We are very close to being able to name formally an ambassador," a senior administration official said in a Wednesday conference call. "We are in the process now of what is called seeking agrement with the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw. That is the formal process whereby their government agrees to our nominee."
Two people familiar with the administration's deliberations confirmed Thursday that Mitchell is that choice.
Initial reaction to the news of Mitchell's pending nomination was overwhelmingly positive, and Burma experts said he had handled the sensitive job of special coordinator with skill and tact.
"He's done a fantastic job and his appointment to be the ambassador would signal that center of action is shifting from Washington to Nay Pyi Taw," the Burmese capital, said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "He's been a great policy coordinator and I'm sure he will be an excellent ambassador."
Mitchell has a good relationship with Suu Kyi, strong support on Capitol Hill, and the confidence of the human rights community, Malinowski said. He added that the administration's incremental response to incremental reforms in Burma was properly calculated.
"The devil is in the details, but in principle, what they announced yesterday is right on the money," he said. "The administration is being quite proactive now and this decision deepens their stake in the outcome. But the progress is reversible and it's really important they continue to approach this not as a success now, but potentially a great success three years from now. It's not a success yet."
Michael J. Green, a former top Asia official in the Bush White House and one-time nominee for the Burma envoy job, also praised the Mitchell selection.
"I think Derek has done very well in his job. He has been surefooted and he has the confidence of all the stakeholders in this Burma policy debate," Green said.
The choice of a political appointee, as opposed to a Foreign Service officer such as current chargé d'affairs Michael Thurston, sends a strong message to the Burmese, Green said.
"I think the administration's policy is calibrated about right," Green said. But Burma is still in need of much greater reforms and President Thein Sein has limited control, he noted.
"There are still campaigns against the ethnics, there are still campaigns about the minorities, there are still unresolved [issues] with Burma's relationship with North Korea, and Burma still has a constitution that is fundamentally undemocratic," Green said. "They [the administration] know that this progress is reversible. They want to show some support for Thein Sein, and appointing Mitchell is the right move."
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Image
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.