Today, President Obama will be the first U.S. President to visit Burma. The unprecedented trip is a celebration for the second largest country in Southeast Asia. It’s also a remarkable achievement since Burma only recently held national elections in 2010 after holding the leader of the democratic opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 21 years.
Obama’s visit to ‘cut the ribbon’ on a seemingly foreign policy success story is the culmination of years of hard work and risk-taking leadership from previous presidential administrations. Like most difficult foreign policy issues that take time to achieve progress, the administrations that do the heavy lifting usually watch the next administration celebrate the success. President George H. W. Bush was president in November 1989 when he celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall even though President Ronald Reagan had been the one to risk his reputation on the then controversial policy. While Obama and his team take a victory lap around Burma, they have thus far failed to do the difficult and arduous work today on other foreign policy issues that could someday be celebrated by future administrations.
Sadly, the Obama team hasn’t even taken risks on the difficult issues of Cuba, Palestine, Sudan or Iran. And they have only recently started to tinker with the issue of Syria after watching 30,000 people killed over the last 18 months. Obama’s Burma press tour is emblematic of just how politically astute the White House has been at avoiding the unpopular and messy diplomatic work necessary to have popular ribbon cutting events.
Recognizing Burma may seem like a no-brainer now but the long and unpopular road to today’s Obama visit started on November 29, 2005. Then, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton wrote a controversial letter to Secretary General Kofi Annan asking for more action from the U.N. on Burma’s repressive government. The next day, Bolton officially raised the issue with the Security Council asking for a formal U.N. Security Council briefing in public. The Chinese were furious with Bolton’s actions and insisted it was a unilateral, aggressive move by a bullying U.S. representative.
In the face of growing opposition from China and Russia, Bolton insisted on an agenda item vote inside the private chambers anyway. Russia and China were joined in the opposition by Japan, Brazil and Algeria while other countries abstained and refused to take a stand on the issue. Bolton’s formal briefing request had failed. But while reporters criticized Bolton for being undiplomatic and too aggressive, he didn’t stop. The government of Burma had extended the house arrest of Suu Kyi and Bolton was demanding there be consequences for it. He switched his request and asked for an informal briefing of the Security Council in private consultations and without an official agenda item. Bolton succeeded and the Security Council was briefed on Burma’s actions on December 16, 2005 for the first time.
Throughout 2006, Bolton pressured the U.N. consistently for more briefings, a historic first ever visit by a UN appointed representative and regular Security Council progress reports. First Lady Laura Bush even hosted a UN roundtable discussion highlighting Burma’s problems in the fall of 2006, even though some countries were nervous about the perceived aggressiveness of the event. On January 12, 2007, the U.S.’ consistent pushing produced a U.N. resolution that was unfortunately vetoed by China and Russia. With continued and repeated pushing, the Bush Administration successfully passed Security Council actions on Burma on October 11, 2007, November 15, 2007, January 17, 2008 and May 2, 2008. The pressure was mounting and the world was insisting that the government of Burma change its ways.
There may be no better example of President Obama’s willingness to pick the flowers but not plant the seeds than his refusal to stand with the people of Iran during their moment of need in June of 2009. While hundreds of thousands of people risked their lives to march in protest against the rigged Iranian elections, President Obama failed to act in support of them. His timidity or refusal to take advantage of the rare moment will forever leave a mark on his presidency. While it may be a long time before a U.S. president visits Iran, it looks like we will have to wait for the next U.S. president to be elected to even begin that process. Very little has been done by the Obama Administration to support the Iranian opposition movement fighting to bring down a dangerous regime and replace it with a democratically elected one.
On Syria, the Obama team has been wildly late and consistently unclear. Sending the U.S. Ambassador back and forth to Syria while the violence unfolded confused even our allies. After 18 months of brutal killings, the Obama Administration is only now reluctantly helping to organize the Syrian opposition struggling to bring down Bashar al-Assad. Instead of doing the sometimes-unpopular work of changing the status quo, the Obama team simply panders by asking “what else are we supposed to do when it’s a dangerous situation?” or by cynically responding with “I suppose we could start another war”.
This useless angst is what gives America an even worse reputation than acting on our own. The idea that the U.S. shouldn’t be the first to act or alone in taking the first step is rooted in a failed and dangerous groupthink philosophy that gives the world genocides, mass killings and endless U.N. talking. The Obama representative at the U.N., Susan Rice, has produced an unprecedented three vetoes on a Syria resolution and hasn’t moved on Iran in 30 months. Hillary Clinton, too, hasn’t risked anything on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or dirtied herself on the Sudan-South Sudan negotiations. It’s easy to take the tour when the project is complete, but who’s digging the footings?
While President Obama revels in his historic Burma visit, his administration has refused to do the heavy lifting necessary for future presidents to celebrate others’ achievements. It’s a selfish strategy that will undoubtedly produce great headlines today but leaves more work and less ribbon cutting for the next president. Ironically, President Obama’s victory lap in Burma today is also the direct result of the unilateral actions of the previous administration – actions he routinely ridicules.