Go Around the Generals

They are “cruel, power-hungry and dangerously irrational,” in the words of one British journalist. They are ” violent and irrational,” according to a journalist in neighboring Thailand. Our own State Department leadership has condemned their “xenophobic, ever more irrational policies.”

On the evidence of the past few days alone, those are all accurate descriptions. But in one very narrow sense, the cruel, power-hungry, violent and xenophobic generals who run Burma are not irrational at all: Given their most urgent goal — to maintain power at all costs — their reluctance to accept international aid in the wake of a devastating cyclone makes perfect sense. It’s straightforward: The junta cares about its own survival, not the survival of its people. Thus the death toll is thought to have reached 100,000, a further 1.5 million Burmese are at risk of epidemics and starvation, parts of the country are still underwater, hundreds of thousands of people are camped in the open without food or clean water — and, yes, if foreigners come to distribute aid, the legitimacy of the regime might be threatened.

Especially foreigners in large numbers, using high-tech vehicles that don’t exist in Burma, distributing cartons of rice marked “Made in the USA” or even “UNDP,” of course. All natural disasters — from the Armenian earthquake that helped bring down the Soviet Union to Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the Bush administration — have profound political implications, as do the aid efforts that follow them. The Burmese generals clearly know this.

Hence the “logic” of the regime’s behavior in the days since the cyclone: the impounding of airplanes full of food; the initial refusal to grant visas to relief workers or landing rights to foreign aircraft; the initial refusal to allow American (or, indeed, any) military forces to supply the ships, planes and helicopters necessary for the mass distribution of food and supplies that Burma needs. Nor is this simply anti-Western paranoia: The foreign minister of Thailand has been kept out, too. Even Burmese citizens have been prevented from taking food to the flood-damaged regions, on the grounds that “all assistance must be channeled through the military.” The result: Aid organizations that have workers on the ground are talking about the hundreds of thousands of homeless Burmese who may soon begin dying of cholera, diarrhea and other diseases. This isn’t logic by our standards, but it is logic by the standards of Burma’s leaders. Which is why we have to assume that the regime’s fear of foreign relief workers could even increase as the crisis grows, threatening the regime further.

If we fail to persuade the junta to relent soon — despite what I hope are assurances that Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the U.S. military will bring only food, not regime change, much as we all might like to see it — then we have to start considering alternatives. According to some accounts, the U.S. military is already considering a variety of options, including helicopter deliveries of food from ships and supply convoys from across the Thai border. The U.S. government should be looking at wider diplomatic options, too. The U.N. Security Council has already refused to take greater responsibility for Burma — China won’t allow the sovereignty of its client to be threatened, even at the price of hundreds of thousands of lives — but there is no need for any country to act alone. In fact, it would be a grave error to do so, since anything resembling a foreign “invasion” might provoke military resistance.

Unfortunately, the phrase “coalition of the willing” has been forever tainted — once again proving that the damage done by the Iraq war goes far beyond Iraq’s borders — but a coalition of the willing is exactly what we need. The French (whose foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders) are already talking about finding alternative ways to deliver aid. Others in Europe and Asia might join, too, along with some aid organizations. The Chinese should be embarrassed into contributing, asked again and again to help: This is their satrapy, after all, not ours.

Think of it as the true test of the Western humanitarian impulse: The international effort that went into coordinating relief after the 2004 tsunami has to be repeated, but in much harsher, trickier, uglier political circumstances. Yes, we should help the Burmese, even against the will of their irrational leaders. Yes, we should think hard about the right way to do it. And, yes, there isn’t much time to ruminate about any of this.

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