On May 3, Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, one of the poorest nations on the planet. With a 12-15 foot tidal wave following it and winds around 150 miles per hour, devastation was the only result. Current Red Cross estimates of the dead range from 68,883 to 127,999. Up to 2.5 million people have been displaced. Obscenely high food prices were forced even higher by the destruction of the rice crops. And, as is always the case in such scenarios, sanitation and medical concerns mean that what happens in the ensuing weeks could easily wind up making the event itself seem like only the preamble. What is the world doing to help? Everything it can … which is to say virtually nothing at all.
Because, you see, Myanmar is ruled by a group of petty tyrants who care more about their own paranoid fears than about the lives of millions of their people. And as international aid shipments are seized or sit because they have so far kept their borders mostly closed to outsiders, we have to ask ourselves a very serious question: Just how many lives have to be at stake before it’s no longer possible to hide behind the flimsy excuse that we are honoring the emaciated abstraction of national sovereignty?
This is more than just some theoretical question political science grad students might debate over darts and micro-brews, and we enable a grave evil if we let it remain merely that. This is real people’s lives hanging in the balance in a situation where hours, let alone days, matter. And if I have one regret at this moment, it is only that I did not write this column yesterday … or the day before that.
I confess that I don’t know whether we should invade Myanmar. But that’s only because the particular facts of the military scenario, the location of the people, and the likely cost in human life and materiel are well beyond the scope of my knowledge. But I want my President to make one of two statements. I either want him to explain to the rest of America why the facts of the situation justify using military force, or to explain why they do not. Because when considered as a theoretical question without the input of such details, this case is beyond obvious.
When your next door neighbor swears at his children, feeds them French Fries and cake, and allows them to watch Tyra on TV, you pray for him and swallow the bitter pill of parental authority. But when a tornado hits his home and you can hear his children screaming for help as he sits on his lawn telling you to mind your own business, you wouldn’t wait for the sheriff to arrive. How else would you live with yourself at night?
Our Declaration of Independence proclaims a profound belief “that ALL people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life….” Well? Are they, or aren’t they? And if they are, why does it boggle the imagination that we would do something to save the lives of tens of thousands in a far away place just as we would to save the lives of a few—or just one next door?
Unfortunately, American foreign policy hasn’t always been motivated by what it should be: our serious commitment to this simple idea that all people matter equally. And yet, this is the principle which has made this country great and could serve to make our foreign policy equally great. This is a chance for us to do the right thing for no other reason than that it is the right thing—a chance to be truly proud of our ability to project force beyond our borders. Myanmar is a country with no strategic value whatsoever. It is nothing but a humanitarian opportunity, which may in fact give it the greatest strategic value of all. What will the slogan be this time: no war to deliver food in Burma?
We all know the United Nations will not act in time. Too many of the world’s governments fear putting their own oppressive sovereignty in jeopardy by setting a precedent like this. Let them rot in the guilt of their indecision. This is not tomorrow’s problem.
So what do I want? Only to force this discussion to take place and quickly. Besides, if my suspicions are correct, then real military action may be unnecessary. The mere threat of it may be sufficient to get them to relent. The Junta say they don’t want aid brought in because it will generate rebellion. Let’s change their calculus by threatening something worse than rebellion. Even paranoid fools would prefer the mere chance of insurrection over the guarantee of invasion. Thus my hope is that we’ll have to do nothing more than rattle our very loud sabers.
But if more is necessary, I submit two simple ideas. In principle, this is the best possible use of our military might. But in practice, I defer to the judgment of people far more informed about the particulars. Perhaps military action is impractical. Perhaps it jeopardizes the activities of NGOs already on the ground in small numbers. Perhaps the window of opportunity has already passed. Perhaps we’re just stretched too thin already. Or perhaps there’s just no good way to deliver food at gunpoint. As I say, these are questions for others to answer. But as for me, I would desperately hope that at the very least we would be willing to use our vast resources for the short time such an operation would likely last to at least have a chance at saving the lives of so many thousands of people. Lives which our most cherished documents affirm are supposed to matter as much as our own.