What Burma Brings Out in Us

Mike Lillis at The Washington Independent makes a good point about how some commentators — and there have been many — have taken rather unexpected stances with regards to the question of humanitarian intervention in Burma:

The unusual nature of the crisis has turned politics on its head. Critics who have blasted the White House for a lack of diplomacy in relation to Iraq are suddenly calling for an intervention that ignores negotiation — not to mention the sovereignty of a foreign nation. The Bush administration, in turn, seems prepared to leave the responsibility to the same United Nations it has skewered, on occasions, as inept, impotent or both.

However, Lillis’ analysis misses the complexity and the continuity of these two respective groups’ responses. Clearly, not all voices who opposed the Bush administration’s cowboy diplomacy in the run-up to the Iraq War are calling for a unilateral invasion of Burma. As I’ve stressed before, even invoking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine — which enshrines the right to overcome state sovereignty and intervene in cases of crimes against humanity — should not be seen as a short-circuiting of diplomacy, but as an intricate extension of it. Exploring the possibility of some sort of humanitarian intervention in Burma — not necessarily of the military variety, and, crucially, in concert with the international community — is simply not analogous to the rush toward war in Iraq.

As for the Bush administration’s response — “leav[ing] the responsibility to the [] United Nations” — this is not as much of a surprise as Mike suggests. We continually ask the global body to assume more and more responsibilities — urging additional peacekeeping missions, calling for greater humanitarian responses, and pushing valuable political reconciliation missions — yet often neglect to appreciate its accomplishments, continually decry its flaws, and even fail to fully fund its important endeavors. Unfortunately, relying on the UN and questioning the organization’s value do not always seem to be mutually exclusive stances, despite the stunning contradiction of this position.