Dana Rohrabacher was one of the Republicans in the House who had supposedly learned some lessons from invading Iraq. He claimed that most of the House Republican conference now thought that invading Iraq had been a mistake. My reaction to that has been to note that criminals often think their crimes were mistakes when they go awry, but it was possible that Rohrabacher meant something more than that. He has become one of the more outspoken Republican critics of the mission in Afghanistan now that he has rediscovered hostility to nation-building. One might have assumed that this meant that he would not be party to the next round of paranoid threat-hyping and reckless fearmongering about a despotic regime overseas. If so, that would have been a mistake. Here‘s Rohrabacher doing his best Rick Santorum impression by warning of the impending threat from…Burma! Whenever we see a mainstream Republican starting to espouse something that sounds like common-sense, America-first foreign policy, I am always skeptical and assume that we merely have to wait long enough to find out that the apparent change of heart was an illusion or a bizarre fluke. Unfortunately, Rohrabacher shows that my skepticism about the “new antiwar right” was entirely warranted.

It is true that the Burmese junta has shown some interest in trying to acquire nuclear technology. While the information revealed earlier this year came from a defector and was promoted by a Burmese exile group, there appears to be some documentation to support the claim. What does this amount to? Not much at all:

The report said the defector had been involved in the nuclear program and smuggled out extensive files and photographs describing experiments with uranium and specialized equipment needed to build a nuclear reactor and develop enrichment capabilities.

But the report concluded that Myanmar is still far from producing a nuclear weapon.

“From what I’ve seen, the quality of workmanship is extremely poor, that the level of professionalism in the things they are building, the drawings they are making is extremely poor, said Kelley.

“I am not saying that this is a nuclear weapons program that is about to scare us tomorrow,” he said. “What I am saying is the intent to build nuclear weapons is much more clear now.”

Not surprisingly, a poor, ramshackle military government doesn’t have the resources or the know-how to go about building a functioning nuclear weapon. That isn’t about to stop Rohrabacher from making this non-existent threat into a global one:

Such awesome new power in the hands of psychotic bullies who have no regard for human life would be a nightmare — not just for the suffering Burmese, but for all of humanity [bold mine-DL]. Like North Korea’s nuclear program, Burma’s does not suggest that it’s time to cut a deal. It’s time for regime change. Such a goal does not require us to send troops, but it does require a commitment to an alternative, and it requires our attention.

Unfortunately for the Burmese people, a military junta with such weapons would mainly just be a nightmare for the Burmese. Having developed them, it isn’t going to give them away, and there’s no reason to think that they would ever use them. Pretty much everything Rohrabacher says about the junta’s crimes and abuses is true, which is why it has never made much sense why the international response to the junta has been to punish the people of Burma with economic and political isolation. Burmese sanctions have had the same effect that sanctions always have on countries with such despotic regimes: the middle class is destroyed, the political opposition is badly weakened, the country is impoverished, and the regime grows stronger vis-a-vis the people. Our colleague Dr. Leon Hadar wrote a paper on the total failure of sanctions on Burma 12 years ago, which has not stopped Rohrabacher from being a supporter of this failed policy. Three years ago Rohrabacher once again supported trade restrictions on Burma for the ostensible purpose of promoting democracy, when cutting off Burma even more from international markets will do nothing of the kind. As Naser Mousavizadeh said in a Newsweek article at the start of this year on the outdated “rogue state” concept:

But Burma presents perhaps the starkest and most advanced case of the failure of Western strategies aimed solely at cutting off repressive regimes. The two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights.

Mousavizadeh went on:

This is not to say that the sanctions haven’t had an impact—only that they have been entirely counterproductive. In a series of recent conversations with civil-society leaders, businessmen, and foreign diplomats in Rangoon, a grim picture emerged: a middle class decimated and forced into exile; an educational system entirely unable to develop the country’s human capital; a private sector hollowed out, with only the junta’s cronies able to profit from trade in the country’s natural resources.

And he also had this to say:

In Burma and Iran—no less than among the other rogues states—decades of Western sanctions have achieved a perfect storm of deprivation for the people, wealth and job security for their rulers, and strategic influence for those countries unmoved by complaints about human-rights abuses.

The depressing thing is that all of this could have been seen back in the ’90s, and scholars such as Dr. Hadar did see it, and yet Burma policy has gone from bad to worse. It is a bad joke that Rohrabacher, a member of the Human Rights Caucus no less, proposes boosting the broken, weakened opposition that his preferred policies have been starving for decades as the means to overthrow the junta. Rohrabacher’s solution rests on this not-very-credible claim:

Aung San Suu Kyi and her ethnic allies are democratic and give the West a viable and powerful option.

I feel like I’m back in the mid-90s reading about the “viable” option of supporting an Iraqi exile-led rebellion against Hussein. Like the Iraqi opposition forces back then, the Burmese opposition forces are in no shape to do much of anything. The junta’s brutality has a lot to do with that, but our sanctions policy has done a fair amount of damage, too. If the Burmese people are “twice sanctioned,” according to a Burmese businessman quoted by Mousavizadeh, the best way to alleviate the Burmese people’s suffering at the hands of the regime is to stop helping the regime in keeping the people poor, poorly-educated and weak.

What won’t help people in Burma is the sort of fantasies being offered by Rohrabacher, who also wrote:

They [the opposition] would already have succeeded in toppling their oppressors, except that China has supplied the junta with an arsenal of modern arms and other instruments of repression.

Rohrabacher has no way of knowing this. What we do know is that the old SLORC held on for many years without substantial Chinese aid. Admittedly, China is now heavily involved in Burma, which makes things even harder for the opposition, but that’s another argument against a regime change policy. Not only would we expect the Burmese opposition to do all the work and take all the risks, but we would be putting them up against adversaries that they could not realistically overcome. If it were just the junta, that might be one thing, but Burma is the client state and trading partner of major regional powers. China and India have an interest in preserving the status quo, and even if India would welcome a change in government China is not going to give up control in one of its new satellites. From the American perspective, a Burma policy focused on regime change would introduce new tensions into the relationship with China that the U.S. doesn’t need. The Bush administration drove U.S.-Russian relations into the ground partly because it seemed to be obsessed with promoting anti-Russian governments in ex-Soviet republics, and Rohrabacher would have us do the same thing with China by trying to topple one of its client governments.

Chinese hostility is even more likely if the new Burmese government is supposed to be an overtly anti-Chinese one. I take it from Rohrabacher’s long-standing hostility to China and his remarks near the end of his article that making Burma a front-line state in an anti-Chinese containment policy is what he has in mind:

I recently returned from the Thai-Burmese border, where I consulted with members of the Burmese democracy movement. I was deeply impressed with not only their courage, but also their commitment to a decentralized, denuclearized, democratic Burma. The freedom-loving people of the region want to be our allies against an evil enemy [bold mine-DL], as they were in the fight against the Japanese in World War II.

Rohrabacher deserves some credit. Not just anyone could propose a policy idea that combines the worst features of the “freedom agenda” in the former USSR with the strategic blindness and moral bankruptcy of our Iran policy together with the reckless encouragement of political dissidents that gave us 1956 in Hungary and the massacre of Shi’ites in 1991. Following these recommendations, we can badly damage relations with a major power, strengthen a dictatorship and set up Burma’s political dissidents for a big fall. It takes a certain kind of dangerous imagination to bring all of these things together to shape policy towards a country that also happens to be of minimal strategic importance to the United States. This is a perfect example of needlessly trying to make another country’s problems into a problem for the U.S.. It is also a good example of wanting to sabotage concrete American interests elsewhere for the sake of making futile gestures of solidarity with dissidents that our policies have been undermining for decades in a country where no American interests are involved.