Talk Is Cheap

A recent video obtained by CNN shows Burmese soldiers beating a demonstrator.
A recent video obtained by CNN shows Burmese soldiers beating a demonstrator. (Cnn Via Associated Press)

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By William Kristol
Sunday, October 7, 2007

On Sept. 25, President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly. Mostly avoiding controversial topics such as Iraq and the war on terrorism, he called on countries to live up to the freedoms promised at the United Nations' founding six decades ago. He called particular attention to the situation in Burma, expressing Americans' outrage at the "19-year reign of fear" imposed by military dictators. Alluding to the tens of thousands who had been bravely and peacefully protesting in the streets for over a month, Bush noted that "the people's desire for freedom is unmistakable."

Bush also remarked that "[t]he ruling junta remains unyielding." So he took the opportunity to announce "a series of steps to help bring peaceful change to Burma," including tighter economic sanctions on the regime's leaders and their financial backers and an expanded visa ban on the worst human rights violators. He urged "the United Nations and all nations to use their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom." National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley explained to the New York Times that Bush wanted Burma's government to "understand that there is a time now for a political transition" and to send a warning against harshly suppressing the protests.

That night, Burma's dictators announced a curfew in major cities. The next day, the bloody crackdown began. Within a few days, scores (at least) of peaceful protesters had been killed, and hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of Buddhist monks and democratic activists had been rounded up and taken away; their fates are unknown. Monasteries were occupied and ransacked by Army troops.

So much for Bush's warning against harshly suppressing the peaceful protests for freedom and democracy.

The United States took the lead in denouncing the crackdown and mobilizing others to do so. Many European nations spoke up. Burma's neighbors, however, many of which have made amorality a doctrine of their foreign policy, could barely bring themselves to say anything. Democratic India, which has military and economic deals with Burma, said only that it was "concerned" and was "closely monitoring the situation."

Then there is China. Beijing is by far Burma's largest economic supporter and arms supplier, providing 90 percent of its weapons, and it supports Burma's rulers with lucrative business deals. China's ambassador at the United Nations blocked passage of a Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown. Couldn't we put pressure on China to pressure Burma? Sure. But given our weak history of pressuring China on anything, and the number of excuses there will be for not making this a priority, no one should hold his breath waiting for real consequences to follow for China. In any case, the expectation that China might somehow be persuaded to support a democratic uprising in its back yard is probably wishful thinking.

So is there nothing more the United States can do? Does the inaction of other governments require our own inaction?

What about using our national power to help the Burmese people against their tyrannical rulers? Burma's regime lost what little legitimacy it had with its bloody crackdown. Parts of the ruling elite must be nervous. Couldn't we give at least some of Burma's generals and soldiers reason to doubt the wisdom of slaughtering political opponents? Couldn't we turn our intelligence-gathering capabilities on Burma to monitor, document and publicize what is happening? Couldn't we tell the generals who are ordering and the soldiers who are carrying out this crackdown that they are being watched, that their names are being recorded -- and that the day will come when there will be plenty of evidence to hold them personally accountable for their deeds?

Couldn't we use other military and intelligence capabilities to put more stress on the regime? As Sen. Joseph Lieberman has suggested, "The junta has tried to cut off the ability of peaceful demonstrators to communicate to the outside world through the Internet and cellphone networks; we should be examining how the junta's ability to command and control its forces throughout the country might itself be disrupted." What about limited military actions, overt or covert, against the regime's infrastructure -- its military headquarters, its intelligence apparatus, its rulers' lavish palaces? Couldn't such actions have a deterrent effect, or might not they help open up fissures in the regime? Have we really done all we can to avert the disaster that is unfolding?

In his second inaugural address, President Bush, quoting Lincoln, put "the rulers of outlaw regimes" on notice: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it." Couldn't the Bush administration do more to give that just God a helping hand?

William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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