Shadow Government

As the Middle East goes, so goes the pivot? And other questions.

The supposed grand master stroke of Obama's foreign policy, the Asia "pivot," is burning to death on the streets of the Middle East. The idea that the sole superpower can pivot away from any critical region was always strategically unsound. But even the Asia part of the pivot is not doing as well as the very self-satisfied Obamanians imagine (Full disclosure: I'm an informal advisor to Mitt Romney's Asia team). Herewith a few questions from a pivot skeptic:

1) Why are Japan and China close to coming to blows over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? Could it be that Japan is less than assured, as President Obama likes to say about another beleaguered allied democracy, that Washington "has its back?" In the absence of assurance of American power and commitment, might it be the case the Japan is expressing its concern over Chinese power through less than helpful acts of nationalism? Might the Japanese read the American newspapers stories that tell daily tales of a declining defense budget and nuclear deterrent?

2) If the Obamanians have managed the China-Taiwan relationship so well, why has China increased its arsenal of theater missiles pointed at Taiwan, its fighter-aircraft programs, and its strategic arsenal? Why hasn't the U.S. sold anything to Taiwan to offset these growing programs? Why does Taiwan remain outside of any meaningful international organization?

3) Might it be the case that Iran watches North Korea grow its nuclear arsenal and kill South Koreans with impunity and learns that having a nuclear arsenal offers a rogue country the ultimate deterrent that can protect it as it menaces its neighbors?

4) Why is it that for all the talk of a "rebalancing" or pivot to Asia, not a single ally or friend has a clue how it should reposture its military? Why isn't Washington bringing allies into a discussion of what military capabilities it is prepared to offer to help defend the Asian peace? For allies the pivot is beginning to look like a few nice speeches, a few thousand Marines rotating further away from flashpoints in Asia and into Darwin, Australia, and a few little ships deployed to Singapore.

5) President Obama was opposed to the South Korean Free Trade Agreement before he was for it. As a senator he helped the agreement gather dust after it was negotiated. As president he took his sweet time getting it ratified. Since then not a single solitary free trade agreement has been signed in Asia. Is free trade not an important tool of the smart power the Obamanians are supposed to be so adept at practicing?

6) Is India not an important part of an Asia policy? If it is, why is the Obama administration, which was for the surge in Afghanistan before it turned against it, showing every sign of rushing to exit Afghanistan? If Afghanistan is smoldering, it would seem that the Indians may not be able to play the role we hoped it would in East Asia.

7) Is it not the case that Asian allies who depend upon Middle Eastern energy resources may watch U.S. fecklessness in the Middle East and perhaps question Washington's ability to be the security partner of first resort in Asia?

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Shadow Government

The Lady of Burma comes to Washington -- at last

Yesterday in Washington, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi stood in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to accept the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. The award had been waiting for Suu Kyi since 2008, when House and Senate leaders initiated legislation "in recognition of her courageous and unwavering commitment to peace, nonviolence, human rights, and democracy in Burma" and President George W. Bush signed it into law.

Still under house arrest in 2008, Suu Kyi chose not to accept the award in absentia. Instead, thinking optimistically, she decided to look forward to the day when she could receive it in person. And indeed she finally did.

A notable roster of well wishers -- including House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senator John McCain, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush and others -- went to the podium to pay tribute to Suu Kyi's courage and commitment to a free and democratic Burma. It was a welcome and increasingly rare display in Washington of bipartisan foreign policy consensus, something that has waned significantly since the end of the Cold War.

For the program's invocation, the Reverend Patrick Conroy, S.J., Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, thanked God for Suu Kyi, calling her a "heroic witness to the dignity of all people." Amen.

Senator McCain, verging on tears, recalled first meeting Suu Kyi 15 years ago and being amazed that this "picture of gentleness and serenity" could be the same "implacable lady" who had so befuddled the men of Burma's military-backed regime.

Mrs. Bush hailed Suu Kyi as "the mother of her country" and recognized her moral clarity and strength. "One of the most repressive governments on earth attempted to isolate and silence one woman," she said. "It must have seemed an easy task. Instead, the regime encountered an immovable object -- and its legitimacy broke against her character."

Secretary Clinton turned to Suu Kyi with a big smile and marveled: "We knew at some point that change would have to come...It's almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are in the Rotunda of our Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of parliament." Applause ensued.

Suu Kyi graciously accepted the honor and then implored: "Please use your liberty to promote ours." She also issued a call to support not just the people of Burma but people "everywhere else in the world where freedom is still a dream." 

In that moment, it was almost impossible not to think about the late Vaclav Havel, the former dissident turned head of state who helped lead Czechoslovakia from tyranny into freedom. Not satisfied with the fruits of his labors at home, President Havel made it his mission to support those who were still seeking freedom from oppression, including Aung San Suu Kyi. And now we see this remarkable woman using her nascent freedoms to pay it forward, just as Havel did, and raising up the plight of freedom seekers beyond her country's borders.

Against this momentous backdrop, it is important to acknowledge the progress Burma has made in such a short time. It is equally important to recognize the enormous task that lies ahead.

In The Case for Democracy, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky is unambiguous about the meaning of freedom. For him, the test is simple:

Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it's a fear society.

In Burma, a corrupt and brutal military regime failed the "town square test" with impunity for nearly 50 years. Today, it's too soon to say the people of Burma are free, but we're cautiously optimistic about the future. 

Since Suu Ky's release from house arrest in 2010 and the emergence of a civilian-led government in 2011, Burma has experienced important openings. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Media censorship has been curbed. 2,000 individuals have been removed from the government's notorious political blacklist. Labor unions have been legalized. And Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy members have stood for parliamentary elections, openly campaigning across the country and sweeping 43 of the 44 seats they contested earlier this year.

Nevertheless, hundreds of political prisoners still sit in Burma's jails. The media now submit copies of their work to government censors after publication, rather than before. Ethnic conflict continues to claim lives. The executive has yet to submit to democratic elections. And constitutional reform is sorely needed.

While confident that her country can overcome these and other obstacles to a free society, Aung San Suu Kyi recognizes that "until the army comes out clearly and consistently in support of the democratic process, we cannot say that it's irreversible." Let us hope that day comes sooner than anyone expects, just as Suu Kyi's historic visit to America came this week.

James K. Glassman is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. Amanda Schnetzer is the Bush Institute's Director of Human Freedom.

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