How to Stifle "Reforms"

Friday, July 18, 2014
Anti-sanctions lobbyists like to argue that prematurely lifting sanctions will encourage dictators to "reform."

Just this week in The Hill, the Brookings Insitution's Richard Feinberg wrote an article entitled "President Obama could use a win," in which he argues that the U.S. would "accelerate" Raul's "reforms" by lifting sanctions.

Of course, he doesn't explain how this would work.

Moreover, there's no evidence to show how prematurely lifting sanctions has ever initiated or accelerated any dictator's reforms.

To the contrary, it's the surest way to stifle reforms -- as the Obama Administration is recently learning in Burma.

These anti-sanctions lobbyists overlook a fundamental premise:

Dictators do not initiate reforms because they want to. Dictators only initiate reforms when forced to.

In Burma, the pressure of sanctions had forced its regime to undertake a host of reforms.

(Burma's political reforms have been more significant than anything we've seen in China or Vietnam. Not to mention far greater than anything we've seen from Raul Castro in Cuba. For more on this, read "To Change Cuba, Stick With the Burma Model".)

President Obama was swayed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- despite objections from others in his Administration -- that prematurely lifting sanctions and high-level engagement would help "accelerate" Burma's reforms.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite is now happening.

As The Washington Post reported last week:

"[T]wo years after Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the achievement is in jeopardy.

Burma’s government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

The situation is most dire in Burma’s western reaches, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims are living as virtual prisoners, with little access to health care and food. The fast-deteriorating conditions prompted Tomás Ojéa Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, to say in April that there is an “element of genocide” in the Rohingyas’ plight.

The setbacks have raised the stakes for Obama’s scheduled November visit to a regional conference in Burma, during which the administration had hoped to showcase the country’s progress as part of its strategic 'rebalance' toward Asia. Now even some of Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill have begun to question whether the administration has moved too quickly to embrace Burma’s leadership."

Feinberg is right that President Obama "could use a foreign policy win."

For starters, he can ignore Feinberg's advice.