There has been a lot of debate about “intervention.” Will other countries intervene in Burma? The United States? If so, how? Can they even do it – do they have “legal” justification?
Countries can do what they want. In Burma, the ruling generals imprison and murder people. If another country wants to step in and stop it, of course they can do it. National sovereignty does not extend to crimes against humanity.
Analysts have been missing one factor, though: The desire of the local population.
What is the United States’ recent intervention experience?
In the first Gulf War, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. stepped in to push them out. America did not get rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor did it ask the Iraqi people what they wanted.
In the second Gulf War the U.S. did get rid of Saddam. But again, without asking the Iraqis first. The war was in fact based on a lie, about weapons of mass destruction. And the lie was just an excuse for George Bush (and Dick Cheney) to finish his father’s work. The result was a disaster. The people were happy to see Saddam gone, but they did not welcome the U.S. presence. They fought back, and it became a quagmire. Had America asked first, though, “would you like to be free of his tyranny,” the result could well have been different.
For Syria, the country also had a long-standing dictatorship (the Assad family), but large swathes of territory were in the hands of ISIS (which grew out of the Iraq insurgency). The U.S. got involved militarily in a big way, to oppose ISIS (and for which it fought alongside the Free Syrian Army and then the Syrian Democratic Forces). And, when ISIS was for the most part defeated, in Syria and also from Iraq, the U.S. left (although some troops are still there). Even though the goal included to bring about democratic change, certainly to the Syrians, Washington did not follow through to Assad’s defeat. This was to the despair of the people, who fled to Turkey in huge numbers. And, not only did America not complete the job, it again failed to ask the local population if they wanted help.
So, in these three cases the U.S. intervened because of oil; a lie, as cover for personal ambition; and terrorism.
A relevant question is, which is worse, ISIS or Burma’s military dictatorship? Which has killed more people? Answer: The generals, soldiers and police of the dictatorship, by at least an order of magnitude.
I don’t know of any historical precedent where the people of an oppressed nation have shouted out for foreign intervention, as is happening now in Burma. There may be one, but nothing on this scale.
For policy makers, this means there is no model to follow. And, their ingrained caution will argue against it. But the risk that such an involvement would turn sour is actually small, particularly since the regime would be defeated.
The junta in Burma, notwithstanding its Chinese backing, is weak. It hasn’t even been able to defeat the Ethnic Armed Organizations. For a behemoth like the U.S. military, it would be a pushover, and – once vanquished – there would be no insurgency. The whole thing could probably be done with air power alone. Facing U.S. air raids on their bases, the Tatmadaw would surrender in short order, especially after the top generals were killed.
So, there is zero reason not to do it. It sounds risky, and there is the question of China, but what is Beijing going to do? It could face a popular revolution at home, too. One thing about the Chinese communists, they act and talk tough, but they have no experience. Their soldiers march in parades. They have never faced live fire. The PLA is a paper tiger. They know it, Xi Jinping knows it, and the U.S. knows it. There would not be a significant confrontation in any case, of course, because of the nukes. But they avoid clashes with America. That’s why they have never – decades of belligerence notwithstanding – invaded Taiwan.
The main worry is that Biden’s advisers are inclined to be pacifist, so they will probably be willing to stand back and watch people who are pleading for assistance be killed. It is Kitty Genovese all over again, at the national level. (Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death in New York, and thirty-eight people saw or heard it happen and not one intervened or even called the police.) That’s the example the world is following now with the people of Burma.