Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Myanmar and the death of Responsibility To Protect (update 9)

So as if things were not bad enough in Myanmar, now food aid is being stolen just as a second cyclone takes aim at the ravaged country. That's enough for The New York Times editorial page, which finally weighed in:

"The Security Council should condemn the junta’s callous disregard of its own people and step up the pressure on the generals to open the country immediately to relief efforts. If the junta still resists, the United States and other countries must begin airdrops of supplies.

China — which sells arms to and has major energy investments and other deals in Myanmar — may be the only one the generals will listen to. Beijing must stop blocking Security Council action and use all its influence to press the junta to open up the country to relief efforts."

Unfortunately, the Times is still caught up in the misconception that countries like Myanmar still have any respect for the Security Council, or that the Council -- which has the explicit mandate to pursue threats to international peace and security, as opposed to natural disasters within a sovereign nation's borders -- is the appropriate forum to deal with any problem anywhere. Also, someone will have to explain to me how airdropping aid will stop it from being taken by the generals on the ground.

On the same op-ed page, Robert Kaplan gets more explicit, saying the West should threaten humanitarian invasion, and, if that doesn't get the junta's attention, should actually consider launching one. Kaplan's argument is that the threat of intervention will put pressure on Myanmar's friendly neighbors China, India, and Thailand, to nudge the regime into accepting aid. And, indeed, even now aid is being ramped up from these countries even as Western aid remains largely blocked. This aspect of his argument is compelling, especially in the face of continued nose-thumbing intransigence by Than Shwe's regime.

Kaplan's argument breaks down, however, when he gets to the proposed invasion itself. Yes, it is, as he claims, "militarily doable." But after observing that one third of Myanmar's 47 million people are ethnic minorities who dislike the Burmese majority group (of whom Aung Sun Suu Kyi is a member), and that the Burmese pro-democracy advocates are disorganized and have demonstrated no skill for running a government, and that the country, lacking much infrastructure, would quite likely completely collapse if the West invaded, he seems to conclude that all of this is acceptable as long as we are willing to commit to rebuilding the nation. The fact that this would be a monumental and quite possibly futile undertaking, even as our current nationbuilding projects in Afghanistan and Iraq are faltering and overstretched, isn't sufficient to put him off.

The telling final paragraph from Kaplan is this (emphasis mine):

"It seems like a simple moral decision: help the survivors of the cyclone. But liberating Iraq from an Arab Stalin also seemed simple and moral. (And it might have been, had we planned for the aftermath.) Sending in marines and sailors is the easy part; but make no mistake, the very act of our invasion could land us with the responsibility for fixing Burma afterward."

Granted, since he does not actually say "we should invade," the entire piece is a bit of an analytical hedge. But in the emphasized line, Kaplan reveals himself to be a member of the school that says, in effect, that invading Iraq was okay, but the postwar plan was botched, thus blaming President Bush's incompetence rather than his worldview and strategy. This school refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the original invasion was wrong, both morally and strategically. Kaplan's final line, that we may end up with an ethnogeographically divided failed state to rebuild on our hands, one with twice Iraq's population, should be a death knell for the humanitarian invasion argument. Instead, it's a cautionary throwaway line in a piece that appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

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