Hillary and Suu Kyi: A Cautionary Tale

It was a meeting of two of the most remarkable leaders of our time. But the question must be asked of both: did they give up too much to the generals?

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When I visited Burma nearly two decades ago for The Associated Press, Aung San Suu Kyi's long and agonizing contest of attrition with the generals was just beginning. No one, perhaps least of all Suu Kyi, thought the stalemate would last this long. Now, at last, it appears to be ending, a breakthrough punctuated by Hillary Clinton's moving embrace of Suu Kyi during the secretary of State's historic visit to Burma this week.

Or is it?

Despite unprecedented reforms, Burma is still run by an ex-general, Thein Sein, who likely still answers to another general, Than Shwe, the officially retired senior junta leader. It is also clear that Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her brave stand, has moved the line from where she started, when she demanded the regime give up power and restore her party's place after it won an overwhelming electoral victory in 1990. Now, instead, we will see a delicate diplomatic dance by which Suu Kyi, carrying America's proxy in her back pocket, will OK any move by Washington before the generals get what they want: a gradual lifting of U.S. sanctions on Burma's isolated and impoverished economy. But, from now on, Suu Kyi will be working with her captors rather than defying them.

Similarly for Hillary, the question must be asked whether, as part of her boss's effort to encircle a rising China with U.S. allies, the U.S. government is a little too eager to usher in a new era of amity with Burma. Clinton declined to endorse her previous demand for a UN-backed war crimes probe, though the Burmese regime has killed thousands of dissidents--probably far more than Syria's Bashar Assad--and announced an initial $1.2 million in aid. Asked in an interview with the BBC on Friday whether, by deciding to run in regime-orchestrated elections, Suu Kyi now "runs the risk of being absorbed by the system," Clinton replied that "from her perspective, it's important to validate the political process." But what if it remains a rigged process?

Similar questions are being asked about the Obama administration's approach to democratic reform in the Arab world: in an effort to get the chaotic Arab Spring over with, is America a little too eager to accept whatever comes, including a military-dominated Egypt and a slew of other countries, from the Gulf states to Saudi Arabia to Yemen, that manage to hold onto their autocracies? Prodded by France and Britain, Hillary and Obama eventually backed regime change in Libya, and they are also insisting that Syria's  Assad step down. But does that represent more a passion for democracy or a Realpolitik desire (legitimate though it is) to isolate Iran, whose only Arab friend is Syria?

This is the same Hillary Clinton, after all, who in 2009 sought to cultivate the Arab dictators as anti-Tehran bloc and called for them to become part of a cold war-style "defense umbrella" against Iran's nuclear program. And who appeared to endorse Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the Tahrir Square uprising, saying: "My family knows him."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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