The New York Times reports: “The United States moved to restore full diplomatic relations with Myanmar on Friday, rewarding the sweeping political and economic changes that the country’s new civilian government has made, including a cease-fire with ethnic rebels and, only hours before, the release of hundreds of political prisoners.” However, the administration “is not yet considering lifting sanctions.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, strenuously objected in a statement released Friday, which read in part:

I am distressed that the Administration is prematurely and publicly discussing any major concessions to the Burmese regime, such as nominating an Ambassador. Any concession to the dictatorship would be grossly premature. The world needs to see that the upcoming April elections are not the same kind of sham that we saw in 2010.

While welcome and long overdue, the release of 591 prisoners of conscience from the Burmese gulag is hardly a ‘momentous step’ toward fundamental reform. . . .

The Burmese regime’s ongoing military assaults, mass rapes, and atrocities against minority groups prove that it is far too early to regard it as ‘a partner and friend.’ The preliminary agreements between the junta and the Karen National Union (KNU), for example, still do not include a nationwide ceasefire, human rights guarantees, or unrestricted press access to vulnerable areas.

She wants to “cease talks with the ruthless tyrants in Burma until the junta has been replaced with a duly elected, democratic government that respects human rights and civil liberties.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the opposite view in a statement released on Friday that read in part:

Today’s release of hundreds of political prisoners by President Thein Sein is a significant positive development. Those individuals now freed include many long-serving, high-profile, and courageous champions of democracy, whom I and others in the international community have consistently urged the government to release. I hope the release of these men and women demonstrates that President Thein Sein’s government is committed to continuing to fulfill all of its promises of democratic reform. . . .

I am also encouraged by reports of a ceasefire agreement between the government and the Karen National Union. Implementing such an agreement would be an important step forward in helping the country end its long-running internal conflicts, which have destroyed the lives of countless people. . . .

In light of these positive steps, I welcome Secretary Clinton’s announcement that the United States will now begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with the government in Nay Pyi Taw, including the exchange of Ambassadors. I will be traveling with a Congressional delegation to Southeast Asia next week, which will include visits to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon. I look forward to continuing my discussions with government leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi about the next steps of their country’s development and how the United States, especially the Congress, can support this process of change.

On this one, McCain and the Obama administration have the better of the argument. As a senior Senate aide (not in McCain’s office) put it: “The prisoner release was a big deal, and there does appear to be a tussle inside the regime between reformers and hard-liners, so it was important to give them something big in exchange for the steps they’ve taken.” The aide thinks that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the right move: “Diplomatic recognition was a major card for us to play. I’m cautiously inclined to think it was justified. Certainly our friends and allies in Asia are happy we did so.”

I also hear from longtime conservative human rights advocate Ellen Bork of the Foreign Policy Initiative. No fan of the Obama administration, she nevertheless agreed that the prisoner releases were “impressive” and that we should be attuned to “signs of power struggle still going on in [Burma’s] government.”

So long as the administration is willing to pull back its ambassador and resume pressure on the Burma government should it regress, the actions by the Obama government seem entirely reasonable. If we have leverage and can influence rogue regimes, we should use it. The problem for the administration has been in its willingness to be forthcoming with other despotic regimes without any sign of changed behavior. If it were only as careful about assessing the behavior of China, Russia and other undemocratic regimes, it might be on to something.