Laura Bush's Disastrous Diplomacy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, May 6, 2008; 12:38 PM

When a country run by a despotic and isolationist regime is laid low by a massive natural disaster, the diplomatic thing to do is to respond with a show of compassion. Not kick 'em when they're down.

More than 22,000 people have died in the staggering devastation caused by this weekend's cyclone in Burma. But when First Lady Laura Bush made her first-ever visit to the White House briefing room yesterday, to talk about what's going on in that country, it was not to deliver a message of goodwill.

Rather than announce the launch of a massive relief effort that could take advantage of a rare diplomatic opening, the first lady instead tossed insults at Burma's leaders, blamed them for the high death toll, and lashed out at their decision to move forward with a constitutional referendum scheduled for this Saturday.

The traditionally issue-averse first lady's concerns about the Burmese junta and its abuses of human rights date back several years, and she's been particularly outspoken since last fall.

But why respond to a catastrophe with such hostility? The awkward timing, as it turns out, may have had something to do with an event entirely unrelated to the cyclone.

"I'm going to leave tomorrow for Crawford, for Jenna's wedding, and I wanted to be able to make a statement about Burma before I left," the first lady told reporters.

The Coverage

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Laura Bush condemned the military government in Burma yesterday for its 'inept' response to a deadly weekend cyclone, marking an unusual foray by the president's spouse into a high-profile foreign policy crisis.

"Appearing at a White House news conference, the first lady said the military junta in Burma is preventing the United States and other nations from providing help in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, and she alleged that the country's rulers purposely declined to warn people of the impending danger. . . .

"Bush . . . called the Burmese regime 'very inept' and urged it to cancel plans for a referendum later this week, which she said would 'give false legitimacy to their continued rule.'

"The remarks underscore the first lady's uncommon emergence as the administration's most visible spokesman on Burma, also known as Myanmar, which is ruled by a junta that is widely criticized as one of the world's most oppressive and corrupt regimes. The news conference marked the first time that she presided at the White House briefing room, which is generally used for official pronouncements by President Bush or his senior aides."

But other countries aren't holding back -- and Burma is apparently begging for help.

Amy Kazmin writes in The Washington Post: "Burma's government, which is traditionally wary of international aid workers, issued a rare appeal for outside help. The United Nations, the United States, Britain and the European Union all expressed willingness to assist, while India said Monday that it was already dispatching two naval ships with relief supplies."

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