Our Failed Myanmar Policy

05/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Economic sanctions are supposed to drive the target government to reform their policy by cutting off their access to funds. But after fourteen years of U.S. unilateral sanctions on Myanmar, not only has the brutal military regime refused to cede ground, but it has even obstructed relief efforts in the aftermath of the cyclone disaster. Will the presidential candidates continue to adhere to a policy that has made a situation even worse?

To be clear, all three candidates have noted that the immediate response to Myanmar should be humanitarian, not political. Disaster relief is a priority, especially given that the military regime's failure to grant visas to aid workers has impeded the humanitarian effort. It would be a poor idea to make immediate domestic reform a pre-condition for aid. That being said, the presidential candidates should take this opportunity to state their positions on the use of unilateral sanctions against Myanmar.

American unilateralism has gone out of style in the last few years (see 'Iraq War'). In one form or another, each of the presidential candidates has declared a willingness to reconnect with the international community to safeguard inalienable rights and freedoms. Clinton plans to "work in concert with other nations and institutions to reach common goals." On Wednesday, McCain pledged to "work with democratic allies to make religious freedom a priority in international relations." Obama insists that we need to talk "not just to countries we like, but countries we don't." But we have yet to see how this rhetoric squares with reality.

Last fall, after the Buddhist monks' protest, the U.S. had a chance to work the EU and the Association of South East Asian Nations ('ASEAN') to constructively engage the Myanmar regime. The EU and ASEAN leaders agreed to enhance security and trade in return for democratic reforms and the release of famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. refused to budge.

There will undoubtedly be situations where the U.S. will have to act unilaterally for moral or strategic regions. But when sanctions do work, they are often used in concert with the threat of military force or as part of a broader, multilateral campaign. Neither is part of the U.S. policy toward Myanmar. We should be willing to question such a policy when it fails to produce results.

Perhaps what the EU and ASEAN leaders realized was that blanket trade and economic sanctions isolated the Burmese from their pro-democracy supporters overseas. By withholding foreign investment, local enterprises and NGOs are deprived from money that could develop their communities. This issue is not exclusive to Myanmar, but includes all the other countries affected by U.S. trade sanctions. Where do Clinton, Obama and McCain draw the line?

Voters benefit from hearing the candidates talk about this issue. Hopefully, in between questions about Jeremiah Wright or Clinton's last day on the campaign trail, the media will ask the questions that may actually help us make a decision in November.