The Cable

On foreign soil, McCain says he wants to work with Obama

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wants to work with the Obama administration on a range of foreign-policy issues and find areas of common interests after the election, he told The Cable and an international audience this weekend.

Following a harrowing week of open warfare with the Obama White House -- in which he threatened to hold up the potential nomination of U.S. U.N. ambassador Susan Rice for secreatary of state -- McCain took off for the Halifax International Security Forum along with Sens. Mark Udall (D-CO), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), John Barrasso (R-WY), a number of Obama administration officials, and your humble Cable guy.

During his panel at the conference, McCain didn't talk about his call for a "Watergate-style" committee to investigate the Benghazi attack of his pledge to do everything in his power to quash Rice's nomination.

"I don't like to be overly critical of my own government," McCain told the international audience assembled in Canada. "I congratulate President Obama on his reelection. The American people have spoken and it's up to us in the loyal opposition to support the president wherever we can, especially when it comes to national security."

In an interview The Cable, McCain offered an olive branch to the Obama administration and said he wants to work with the president wherever and whenever possible.

"The American people have spoken. I think we ought to try to find ways where we can work together," McCain said. "I think Syria is a classic example of that. I've heard that they are reevaluating the whole situation. I would love to work with them."

McCain said that he was told the White House is conducting a full post-election reevaluation of America's Syria policy and said he wants to work with the administration to increase foreign aid to Libya to help that country continue progress toward developing their fragile democracy.

"We want to work with him, we want to support him," he said, referring to President Obama. "We think these issues are too critical. But it's also our job in the loyal opposition to disagree where we disagree, and in an open and honest fashion, and to engage in a debate that all the American people can take part in."

McCain said he supports Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, a pet project of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), another oft-mooted name for Foggy Bottom.

"I think it's going to require a presidential push to get through and I think it's important that we move forward on that," he said. "I think we can work together on almost every issue, I really do. We have in the past on several issues."

McCain didn't pretend he agrees with the administration on everything. He said the president's trip to Burma this week was a mistake because it came too soon in Burma's reform process and was done despite the concerns of longtime leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

He also couldn't resist leveling some harsh words at the Obama administration's Syria policy.

"I'm ashamed as an American," McCain said. "While we sit by and watch that happen without even giving them weapons to defend themselves. This will be a shameful chapter in American history, my friends, because we could have done something and we can still do something today. But we won't."

"Only 37,000 have been massacred. I guess in the grand scheme of things that's not too many, compared to some wars," he said.

McCain indicated that his real fight over the next two years on foreign policy will not be with the White House, but with members of his own GOP Senate caucus who want to steer Republican foreign policy toward a more isolationist and non-interventionist stance. He singled out Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) for threatening to cut off all U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt.

"Particularly in the Republican party there's always been a conflict. It's between the isolationists and those who believe we have a role to play in the world. It concerns me a great deal," he said. "That debate will rage between now and the next elections."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Obama seeks to ‘lock down’ existing reforms on historic Burma trip

U.S. President Barack Obama will make an historic trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar, next week, but there are no signs that the Burmese government will announce any new concrete reforms or that the president will bring back any deliverables from his visit to the former pariah state.

Human rights activists, leaders of the Burmese exile community, and even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have expressed concerns that the first visit of a U.S. president to Burma is coming too early in the country's incomplete and fragile reform process and that the Obama administration has failed to use the occasion to push for new reforms from the Burmese government, which is still engaged in bloody clashes with ethnic minorities, has not released all of its political prisoners, and has an economy that is opening but still heavily favors the military.

At an event Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained that the point of the president's trip is not to secure new reforms right now, but rather to show that previous and potential future reform efforts are supported at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

"The president's visit at this time reflects his conviction that engagement is the best way to encourage Burmese authorities to further action. There's a lot more to be done, and we are not going to miss this moment in terms of our opportunity to push this along and to try to lock in as much reform and lock in this path forward as best we can," Donilon said. "In becoming the first U.S. president to visit Burma, the president is endorsing and supporting the reforms under way, giving momentum to reformers and promoting continued progress."

"The president's meetings, as well as his speech to the people of Burma, will also be an opportunity to reaffirm the progress that still must be made," he said. "This includes the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners, an end to ethnic conflicts, steps to establish the rule of law, ending the use of child soldiers and expanding access for humanitarian assistance providers and human rights observers in the conflict areas."

Obama will lay out some specific measures the United States intends to take to support Burma's democratic transformation and economic development, but U.S. officials did not specify what they were. Some experts believe the president will announce the further easing of sanctions against Burma, such as through an easing of the ban on Burmese imports.

But there's no indication yet that the Burmese will announce they are doing anything specific to address U.S. concerns about the progress of reform. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that there's no way to know if any of the hundreds of prisoners the Burmese government released this week in advance of Obama's visit are actually political prisoners.

"We've seen, obviously, reports about the prisoner release. We don't know, frankly, at this point how many and whether they are, in fact, political prisoners that were released," he said. "I mean, obviously, the unconditional release of all political prisoners has been a longstanding goal of the United States, but we just don't have any specific details on this latest tranche."

Senior White House aide Daniel Russel said on a Thursday conference call with reporters that the administration believes the visit itself can be a strong instrument of encouraging reform in Burma.

"It's critical to us that we not miss the moment to influence them, to keep them going. It's an uphill climb. We want to make progress irreversible," he said. "We want to show the Burmese people there are benefits to their hard work, and move some leaders who are on the fence into the reform program."

Another senior White House official, Samantha Power, said that the reason to engage is not to reward the Burmese, but to "lock down" progress and encourage more. She said there had been "genuine progress" in achieving ceasefires between the Burmese government and ethnic groups, but acknowledged violence directed against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine is ongoing and humanitarian access in Kachin state is a problem.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that Burma is a key part of the Obama administration's efforts to promote democracy and human rights.

"From the beginning of the administration, the president has signaled an openness to engagement with governments that have not had relations with the United States, provided we see those governments taking steps to change course and respect the rights of their citizens. And we pursued a period of engagement with the Burmese government that helped encourage and lead to fairly dramatic reforms that we've seen," he said.

Obama's visit will be closely scrutinized by human rights groups, many of which have concerns about the administration's strategy.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wrote an open letter to Obama Thursday urging him to raise the issues of religious freedom and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Burma's Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states.

"The alarming state of affairs faced by Burma's ethnic nationalities reveals how much farther Burma's new government must go in advancing reform and protecting universal human rights," the group wrote. "Under military rule, Burma was one of the world's worst human rights and religious freedom violators. Under civilian rule, it has yet to put that image behind it and fully affirm its ethnic and religious diversity by upholding human rights, including religious freedom, for everyone."

Obama will arrive in Thailand on the afternoon of Nov. 18 and first visit the Wat Pho monastery, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. He will then have a royal audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX. The president will then meet with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the government house, followed by a press conference and a dinner hosted by the prime minister.

On the morning of Nov. 19, Obama and his team will move on to Burma. He will first have a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein in the parliament building in Rangoon. After that, Obama will visit Suu Kyi in the residence where she spent years under house arrest. He will then go to the U.S. Embassy, led by Amb. Derek Mitchell. Finally, Obama will deliver a speech on the future of Burma and U.S.-Burma relations at the University of Rangoon.

After the speech on Nov. 19, Obama will move on to Cambodia, where he will attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a meeting of the East Asia Summit. While he's there, Obama is expected to have bilateral meetings with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. He'll leave Cambodia to return to Washington on Nov. 20.