Yesterday, just moments after President Bush finished his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Bill Kristol called the speech a “nothingburger.” The Weekly Standard editor, appearing on the Fox News Channel, was complaining that the Commander-in-Chief had said virtually nothing about Iran at a time when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was lounging in the audience and Iranians were helping to kill Americans in Iraq.
The President’s silence on Iran was indeed troubling. But he nonetheless delivered an important message. “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma,” the President declared. He announced that the United States would tighten economic sanctions, expand a visa ban, and continue to support humanitarian groups. He called on the U.N. and its member nations to help the Burmese people “reclaim their freedom” and put an end to a “nineteen-year reign of fear.”
Bush’s words came at a critical moment. Hours after he left the podium in New York, government security forces in the capital of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, fired on protesters. At least five of them died. The generals ordered the crackdown after Beijing, apparently, gave them the green light to use force. They had been unable to quell more than a month of street demonstrations across the country. This week there have been protests numbering 100,000 in the capital. (In 1988, the junta killed an estimated 3,000 citizens participating in similar protests.)
The Rangoon generals, who have caused a long-term economic downturn, could not maintain themselves without material and diplomatic support from their neighbors. China has been their primary backer. This January, for instance, Beijing vetoed a U.S.-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution on Burma, and in May the Chinese regime refused to join ASEAN in urging the generals to release Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy advocate who was imprisoned immediately after her party won national elections in 1990.
The U.N. and Asian regional organizations have been hamstrung by Beijing—and to a lesser extent by Moscow and New Delhi. As a result, the generals in Rangoon have been able to maintain their repressive regime in the face of dissent at home and withering criticism abroad. Now it is up to the United States, the power of last resort in the international system, to provide the support for democratic change in Burma. So did President Bush serve up a nothingburger yesterday? Nothing could be further from the truth.