In divided US politics, rare agreement on Myanmar

AP News
Posted: Jan 26, 2012 2:38 AM
In divided US politics, rare agreement on Myanmar

Partisan squabbling has hobbled the business of government in Washington, but on one foreign policy issue at least, Democrats and Republicans appear willing to set aside their differences and get things done. It is Myanmar.

The Obama administration has support from key Republicans to restore full diplomatic relations and contemplate easing sanctions against the country also known as Burma, reversing two decades of U.S. isolation of a reviled military regime.

Primarily that is because the president has political cover from a slight figure idolized on both sides of the political aisle in Washington: democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"She's really the key figure," said Walter Lohman, director of Asian studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. "As long as they stay close to her, I don't see any controversy."

Standing up for Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi has long been a pillar of Washington's policy toward Myanmar. The administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both urged the military to honor the rejected 1990 election victory by Suu Kyi's party. They pursued policies that left the ruling junta an international outlier.

That was an uncontroversial stance, backed by other Western governments, and a relatively painless one for Washington because of the limited American business and strategic interests in the country. In recent years, however, misgivings about emerging superpower China's pervasive influence over its southern neighbor have given traction to the argument that the U.S. should be more engaged.

While there is far more bipartanship on U.S. foreign policy than on domestic issues, Myanmar is unusual to the extent that influential Republicans and Democrats alike appear on the same page as the White House. On other areas of foreign policy where there is broad agreement, differences in nuance and tactics cause divisions.

For example, the U.S. remains the staunchest international ally of Israel but Republicans accuse Obama of being too sympathetic to Palestinians. Despite billions in weapon sales to Taiwan, lawmakers of both parties have said it is not enough. Obama also faces bipartisan demands to punish China for keeping its currency undervalued.

The U.S. first applied sanctions on arms sales to Myanmar after its bloody suppression of a democracy uprising in 1988. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have since tightened restrictions to cover political, economic and trade ties, making them among the stiffest Washington has against a foreign government.

"In many respects, most of our major policy initiatives were designed and implemented by the legislative branches, so there will need to be partnership in place as we go forward," Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said last week.

The most prominent voice in Congress on Myanmar has been the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, a staunch advocate of Suu Kyi's cause for years. He has emerged an unlikely supporter of the administration's engagement strategy, which has gained traction since the military staged fresh but flawed elections in November 2010, then freed the opposition leader and began releasing political prisoners.

After McConnell made his first visit to Myanmar this month, he praised the decision to exchange ambassadors with that government for the first time in more than 20 years, a significant endorsement as the U.S. ambassadorial nominee will need Senate approval.

McConnell wrote in a newspaper commentary that according to Suu Kyi and others he met, Myanmar appears to have made more progress in the past six months than in the previous five decades of military rule. He concluded it was too soon to lift sanctions but was open to rewarding the government for further reforms, saying he would take his cue from Suu Kyi.

It is unusual for McConnell to endorse an administration initiative with such enthusiasm, especially in an election year. During 2011, Republican opposition made it a struggle for Obama even to keep government running and raise the debt ceiling, and McConnell has said his single most important goal is the make Obama a one-term president.

Obama's Republican rival in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain, visited Myanmar this week and struck a similar note to McConnell's. Like the administration, both the Republican senators are watching to see whether by-elections April 1, in which Suu Kyi is a candidate, will be free and fair before deciding whether it is time to act on sanctions. They also want to see more releases of political prisoners, an end to decades of ethnic violence and a severing of military ties with North Korea.

Even with their support, setting U.S. policy toward Myanmar will not be all smooth sailing. While some easing of sanctions can probably be conducted by executive order from the president, other steps will require approval by both houses of Congress.

Some in the Republican-controlled House have accused the Obama administration of moving too far, too fast.

The hawkish Republican leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, has called concessions to the military "grossly premature."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a dogged human rights advocate, voiced concern over alleged persecution of Christians in Myanmar. He told The Associated Press that while he was supportive of Suu Kyi, the U.S. should not be naive in its dealings with the government and "reward that which can be taken back in a heartbeat."

Smith said the U.S. had normalized diplomatic and trade relations with authoritarian regimes in Vietnam and China only to see them crack down on activists afterward.