While the situation in Burma has gone from bad to worse to unspeakable in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, a soulless regime prepares, incredibly, to hustle starving voters to the polls this weekend for a sham constitutional plebiscite to solidify its rule. Burmese Gen. Than Shwe agreed Wednesday to allow some foreign aid workers to enter the country, but little has changed. This looks to be diplomatic maneuvering by a regime so preoccupied with self-preservation that it deprives its own people their right to the same if it means allowing much foreign influence.
All this has seemingly resurrected the "humanitarian hawk," that once-familiar foreign-policy altruist best known for favoring aggressive diplomatic and military action in the Balkans in the 1990s. Incredibly, voices in some of the same countries that deny humanitarian imperatives in Iraq now speak loudly on Burma. One could previously be forgiven for concluding that these "hawks" had gone extinct.
Arguing for forced relief aid, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was the first to invoke the phrase "crime against humanity" to describe the Burmese junta's refusal to allow aid workers to help its people. Some 128,000 may already have perished. A bipartisan group of 43 U.S. House members also urged President Bush to consider a "humanitarian intervention" - against the wishes of the Burmese junta. "The Burmese authorities are responsible for a crime against humanity," followed European Union lawmaker Urszula Gacek of Poland in Strasbourg. Others joined her in a quorum of lawmakers arguing in favor of forcing aid on devastated Burma. The EU Parliament seeks to bring the Burmese junta to trial at The Hague.
These voices mean to strike in the Burmese junta a fear of international intervention, up to and including military action. They have the 2005 U.N. "responsibility to protect" doctrine in mind: No nation, according to this international legal stricture, may abdicate its duty to protect the basic rights of its own people. But how credible are threats of action on this basis, with whose backing and with what force?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the calculating realists are found among Burma's neighboring countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Top diplomats from these nations met this week in Singapore in an attempt to prod the Burmese generals to accept aid. Avoiding condemnatory remarks, each was heard expressing varying amounts of optimism that the generals would relent.
They keep promising to, but so far have not. If the hawks roosting this week from Paris to New York in numbers not seen since before the Iraq war succeed in pushing open the closed doors of the junta, all the better. But it seems unlikely that the present strategy can achieve results in any sustainable manner. Is the West prepared to invade Burma? We doubt it, and we doubt the wisdom of it. Not even considering old questions of sovereignty, military action and global order, it defies belief that the new-old liberal interventionism last seen in numbers during the Balkan years has much staying power when few believe that the United Nations and Western countries would actually be willing to undertake anything but the most cost-free forceful intervention in a country such as Burma.