On May 5, as the winds of Cyclone Nargis were dissipating to the north of Burma, the U.S. government took its best shot at saving the day. A grand total of $250,000--the price of a condo in Dallas, or a lecture from Bill Clinton--would be sent to help the storm's victims. The amount of aid offered by the United States would grow in the days to come, but the pattern was set: America was not going to do nearly enough to help the Burmese people.
Actually, our most atrocious failure in Burma has nothing to do with money. It has to do with politics. In the three weeks since the disaster, the country's brutal junta has seized shipments of food and medical assistance, blocked vessels with aid cargo--including three U.S. Navy ships--and kept out many foreign relief workers. At the height of the chaos, Burma's military leaders even forged ahead with a constitutional referendum, passed with suspiciously broad support, that consolidates and continues the regime's pillage of national resources.
If this disaster had happened ten years ago--that is, before Iraq--plans would almost certainly be on the table for some form of humanitarian intervention designed to resolve the situation. Maybe we would be talking about deposing the Burmese regime outright; maybe we would be discussing--as Robert Kaplan did in a recent New York Times op-ed--more modest steps, such as sending U.S. Marines on boats to deliver supplies to the hardest-hit areas. But, either way, realistic options would be considered for saving Burmese lives, even if those options involved violating Burmese sovereignty.
Instead, American diplomats in Asia have explicitly avoided direct criticism of the regime. And, even as the USAID brigade waits for visas in Bangkok so that it can enter Burma, the White House has made sure to clarify that no threat of force is on the horizon.
This is, put simply, an unacceptable abdication of our moral responsibilities. Even though our standing in the world has been severely diminished by Iraq, we should at least be debating intervention in Burma. There are, no doubt, many logistical complications and unintended consequences that would follow from such a policy. But there are also reasons why it should be a live option. The goal of such an intervention need not be regime change; it should simply be to make sure that a vulnerable population receives the supplies it desperately needs. Of course, if violating the sovereignty of a murderous regime happens to undermine that regime's legitimacy, then that would not be such a terrible result. But this does not necessarily have to be our goal.
For now, unfortunately, the junta's leaders can rest assured that no one is going to threaten their sovereignty. Instead, we will send money and food--much of which will undoubtedly be hoarded by the junta--and comfort ourselves with the lie that our charity, and our charity alone, will be enough.
By The Editors