In recent weeks, Virginia Senator Jim Webb has ignited a fierce controversy over U.S. engagement with Burma while the Obama administration is still debating its policy toward the thuggish, isolated Southeast Asian state.
Webb, a Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan and a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, has plenty of critics, who portray him as a military man distrustful of diplomats and politicians alike. But Webb, who chairs the formerly sleepy Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee, is nonetheless a one-man blur of diplomatic activity, and Asia hands are taking notice. Many, however, see him as a bull in a China shop, gallivanting around Asia upsetting the delicate balance the Washington foreign-policy establishment is working to maintain.
Webb's supporters point out that his extensive Asia experience goes back decades and his diplomatic activism is based on his historical perspective and his independent connections there.
Webb's five-nation tour of Southeast Asia last month made huge news; he was the highest-level U.S. official in years to meet with the leaders of Burma's reclusive military junta and he had a private meeting with Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The fallout from Webb's trip has reinvigorated the Washington debate over Burma policy, centered around Webb's controversial push to engage the brutal Burmese dictatorship, which he says should include consideration of easing sanctions.
The pushback against Webb's initiative has been severe, driven by a loose alliance of democracy advocates, former Bush administration officials, and a segment of the neoconservative intellectual brain trust.
In an exclusive interview with The Cable, Webb defended his stance on Burma and sought to correct the record on a number of rumors and reports about what actually happened when he traveled there.
First, Webb stood by statements he made in a Thailand press conference, when he said that Suu Kyi had told him she was open to the idea of lifting some sanctions against the military government now holding her captive and that she has spent much of her life fighting.
"The statements that I have made about her or the discussions that we had are my best attempt to show respect to her situation," said Webb, "It was my distinct impression from the conversation that she would not be opposed to lifting some of the sanctions."
Immediately after Webb's trip, Suu Kyi's lawyer Nyan Win, who is also a spokesman for her National League for Democracy party, told the Irrawaddynewspaper, an expatriate publication based in Thailand that is critical of the junta, that she hadn't endorsed lifting any sanctions and that she favored working internally with the government led by senior General Than Shwe, whom Webb also met with.
"Only the people who were in the meeting know what was said," retorted Webb.
Webb also flatly denied several points made in a scathing Weekly Standardarticle entitled "A Tangled Webb in Burma." The magazine, run by neoconservative thought leader William Kristol, has been hammering Webb on a constant basis by running critical stories and blog posts on its Web site, run by former McCain campaign staffer Michael Goldfarb.
For example, Webb never placed a hold on the nomination of Kurt Campbell to be assistant secretary of state for East Asia, as the story claims, he said. The delay in moving the nomination was due to the need to thoroughly examine Campbell's business dealings related to StratAsia, the consulting firm he founded with Bush administration NSC Asia director Michael J. Green.
Nor, says Webb, did he in fact finally relent on the Campbell nomination after "multiple, pleading calls" from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as the article alleges, adding that Clinton played no role in Webb's trip to Burma.
In her own trip to Thailand for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in July, Clinton had hinted that the United States might "expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma," leading some observers to speculate that the secretary might share some of Webb's controversial views.
Webb swatted such speculations away. "Hillary Clinton has neither helped not hindered me on this," said Webb, "She has never in any way opened up a door with me on this issue or helped to shut a door."
"If we had relied on the State Department, we wouldn't have gotten the meetings that we got, quite frankly," he added.
What is much harder to deny is that leaders of the Burmese democracy movement were extremely upset with Webb's talk of lifting sanctions, taking to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to criticize his actions and calling them "damaging to our democracy movement."
But Webb said engagement of the Burmese government is needed to combat growing Chinese influence there, has the best shot of opening up Burma through economic penetration, and besides, he argues, the sanctions haven't worked.
"Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region," Webb wrote in the New York Times. (The senator's use of the name "Myanmar" is itself controversial, as it is the name chosen by the junta in 1989 and is rejected by many Burmese opposition groups and ethnic minorities.)
Everyone's a Critic
One former senior official told The Cable that Webb was planting the seeds of discord between the United States and some Southeast Asia allies by giving false hope about what the U.S. government might be willing to do in terms of altering its Burma policies.
Webb has gotten far ahead of the administration's ongoing comprehensive policy review, which is expected soon, the official said.
Webb rejected that criticism, telling The Cable that he was clear with his interlocutors about his role in the U.S. government and besides, as a senator it's not his job to work on behalf of the administration.
Another worry, the former senior official said, is that Webb's approach gave too much legitimacy to the junta and sent the wrong message to that whole region, namely that the U.S. was moving away from promoting democracy and human rights, and was growing more willing to support bad actors and less committed to supporting civic reformers.
"Burma is a proxy fight in Asia as for which of these divisions in ASEAN will be the future," the official said."
Webb's support for the 2010 Burmese elections, which all but the most optimistic observers feel will be far from fair, will only serve to cement the new Burmese constitution, which enshrines military rule, according to the official.
"Political realism is, you try to take what you can get and build on it," Webb responded, "If we develop relationships, we can improve the environment under which the elections are held."
Some Asia policy hands reject Webb's contention that engaging the Burmese junta is necessary to combat growing Chinese influence there. Burma has never been a Chinese client state, one expert said, and China's dollar diplomacy in Burma isn't reason enough to warrant America sacrificing its commitment to core values.
"We will never be mercantilist and cynical enough to beat the Chinese at their own game," said the expert, "It's a winning strategy to focus on democracy and human rights."
In recent weeks, Beijing has expressed some displeasure over the Burmese government's ongoing fight with restive minority groups in its eastern regions, and the resulting instability has sent thousands of refugees streaming into China.
Georgetown University professor David Steinberg defended Webb in a recentAsia Times article, saying that Burmese democracy advocates "miss the point of Webb's visit."
"Webb has started a process that is important. Where it will go, we don't know," said Steinberg, "We know what will happen if the policy of isolation will continue ... nothing."
Inside the U.S. government, different parts of the administration have different views on how to handle Burma. The uniformed military is "value-neutral," one source said, meaning they generally see benefits in engaging with other militaries.
But new Obama civilian Pentagon officials such as principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Derek Mitchell and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Michael Schiffer have their own well-formed Burma ideas.
Mitchell and Green, the Bush-era NSC official, penned an article in Foreign Affairs in 2007 arguing the junta should be engaged, but only in conjunction and coordination with regional allies and only after the release of Suu Kyi.
What's unknown is where Hillary Clinton and ultimately President Barack Obama come down on how to deal with Burma. Clinton has hinted that the administration review could recommend some change on sanctions.
The position of special envoy to Burma is also vacant. Green was nominated byGeorge W. Bush for the job in the twilight of his second term, but the clock ran out on that administration before he was confirmed.
The Obama team was inclined to let the Green nomination go through as an olive branch to the McCain campaign (for which Green was an advisor). But then-subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-CA, scuttled the idea because her demand for a favor from Vice President Joseph Biden in exchange for her acquiescence was rejected, sources said.
No new envoy has been nominated, but sources said that Human Rights Watch'sTom Malinowski is a top contender. Malinowski, who was reportedly in the running to head the Democracy, Rights, and Labor bureau at the State Department but ran into snags over whether he was considered a "lobbyist" under the administration's disclosure rules, penned an op-ed in 2006 entitled,"Call Cruelty What It Is," which compared Bush administration interrogation practices with those of Stalin.
Webb plans to hold a hearing on Burma, to be scheduled for October, according to an aide.