The Corner

Irrawaddy Invasion

On the speculation about a humanitarian invasion of Burma, it’s clear that NRO readers are on to the fact that liberals will only use force when our own national interests are not at stake. That is very sad, and even mildly entertaining in its perversity. But what happens to the millions about to die from exposure, starvation, and disease because the junta won’t allow aid in, and/or can’t/won’t distribute it effectively? The odds are, they will die.

Perhaps the best combination of useful facts and intelligent analysis comes (as it so often does on third-world crises) from my old friend, Robert Kaplan, writing in the New York Times. Kaplan says that the military part is the easy part. Our team is well organized for this sort of affair. And, by great chance, we have a lot of Navy ships sitting in a port in Thailand, where they were supposed to be playing war games. That means they could be there quickly enough to help. But, after explaining why various regional powers and other players would object to our military presence, Kaplan writes:

The other challenge we face lies within Myanmar. Because a humanitarian invasion could ultimately lead to the regime’s collapse, we would have to accept significant responsibility for the aftermath. And just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall was not supposed to lead to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein was not supposed to lead to civil war, the fall of the junta would not be meant to lead to the collapse of the Burmese state. But it might.

About a third of Myanmar’s 47 million people are ethnic minorities, who have a troubled historical relationship with the dominant group, the Burmans. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroine of the democracy movement, is an ethnic Burman just like the generals, and her supporters are largely focused on the Burman homeland. Meanwhile, the Chins, Kachins, Karennis, Karens, Shans and other hill tribes have been fighting against the government. The real issue in Myanmar, should the regime fall, would be less about forging democracy than a compromise between the Burmans and the other ethnic groups…

So, Kaplan suggests that we have learned something about the laws of unintended consequences — surely a good thing. We still have not learned how to piece a country back together again, and we sure don’t trust the Chinese taking charge of that in Burma. The locals, including the heroic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — Laura Bush’s hero — are not organized. (As a rule, I believe that the third world is the third world in large part because it isn’t organized.) A well-functioning Central Intelligence — the current one or a new one — would have the democracy movement in better shape, and might have helped out those tribes at the border to organize better resistance, and to be ready should the moment come when the military rulers collapse. Even as I write that, it sounds ridiculous to me. What nation is so far-seeing and has such great intelligence and other resources that it could bother to do that much work for a small, unimportant country with few resources and of no real interest to us? On the other hand, I recall having that endless debate, in many forums, during the late 1980s vis-a-vis helping the Afghans organize into a functioning state after the Soviets left. Small, poor, useless country. Who cares? What harm can they do?

And why should we care about Burma, apart from humanitarian reasons? A great many serious defense analysts in this country believe that China is the ultimate threat, greater even than the jihadists. A friendly government on its border could be useful, no?

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