Myanmar Crisis Sparks Debate about Intervention

Despite the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the country's military junta has refused most offers of aid. Their resistance has led some to call for a military intervention. Harvard Professor Samantha Power and Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt discuss the politics and ethics of intervention.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Today we want to talk about fighting poverty with Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank. He's bringing the micro-lending model to the U.S. And we're also going to hear about a new project to help kids in military families cope with their special challenges. That's a little later.

But first, we want to turn our attention to the crisis in Myanmar, the country formerly called Burma. International observers believe that last week's cyclone has left nearly 130,000 dead or missing and as many as two million more people in desperate need of relief, and the situation could become more dire as heavy rains disrupt aid efforts.

But one of the things that has focused the attention of the world is that this natural disaster is being compounded by human decisions. Myanmar's ruling military regime has been extremely reluctant to allow foreign aid and aid workers into the country to assist in the relief efforts, and this has caused some to wonder whether the international community has a moral or ethical duty to consider forcible intervention.

Here to talk about this is Samantha Power. She's a professor at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." Also with us is Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for the Washington Post. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. FRED HIATT (Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Fred, I'm going to start with you. This is how - you wrote about this recently in the Post on the op-ed page and the piece begins this way. It says, when a parent abuses or neglects a child, government steps in to offer protection. But who steps in when government abuses or neglects its people? What's the answer to that question?

Mr. HIATT: I think morally, at some point, other countries have to step in and try and help when you have a case like this of total criminal neglect by an illegitimate government of its own people.

MARTIN: Samantha, what is your view of this?

Prof. SAMANTHA POWER (Carr Center for Human Rights, Harvard University): Well, it's the same. And the only thing I would add is that we've been - we have to be very careful to be effects-based in our consideration of what policy tool to employ and that was of course, the peril of, you know, humanitarians whose favor the war in Iraq was some belief that because Saddam Hussein was a monstrous leader, as of course he was, that that in and of itself justified an intervention, and we didn't really think through the consequences.

So I think whatever the policy tool is, we just have to be weighing the massive suffering that's underway right now against what will ensue, and that argues sometimes for more creative and less obvious approaches which in the case of Burma is very, very hard to come up with.

MARTIN: Well, Samantha, do you have an idea about what the appropriate step is at this point? I mean, obviously, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has strongly expressed his disapproval of the government's behavior. Now he says - he said yesterday that he secured support from Myanmar and key donors to increase their relief aid and to offer more access to foreign workers, but he also said that, I quote, "Until now, regrettably, I think we spent much of our time and facilitating aid, getting food in and visas being issued." What else should he say or do?

Prof. POWER: It's an absurdity right now the state of play. I mean, when one looks back to the Pakistan earthquake response, there were planes leaving every few minutes, you know, from bases and airports to get up into the Himalayas, and here you're talking about two planes landing every day when you have 130,000 people already killed.

I mean, I think that what Ban Ki-moon is doing is probably the right thing from his perspective, from his standpoint, which is he's working behind the scenes. And I have to say, tirelessly, to his eternal credit, to try to get aid workers in, in a relatively low profile way. And I think there are more aid workers getting in as a result of his private diplomacy than we're even aware of, and it's probably best that we keep it that way and not draw attention to that.

But the others, and including the secretary general but certainly Western leaders who have been saber-rattling a lot on this issue, need to be figuring out how to get China enlisted into this cause because the only country with sizable leverage over this incredibly suspicious regime is China. Now China comes up in every conversation about Tibet, about Darfur, it's now got its own earthquake to deal with and it's very, very distracted. But without China it's hard to imagine this very xenophobic regime opening up in the kind of - at the kind of scale that we need in order to respond.

So it's about relentless diplomacy and asset-freezes, travel bans and other things that can, in the region, make the regime feel vulnerable to neighbors that have thus far been very uncritical of its behavior.

MARTIN: Fred, but I get the impression from your editorial that you believe the United Nations should - has a mandate to do more and should be doing more. What exactly should it be doing?

Mr. HIATT: Well, of course, I agree with Samantha that you have to think about practical effects as well as the moral justification. But I would just add that it's always going to be complicated in cases like this and of course, Iraq makes it more complicated, the suspicious regime makes it more complicated, but if ten years from now we look back and we see that hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly from cholera, malnutrition, typhoid, diarrheal diseases and other second-order effects of the cyclone from which people could have been saved, we will say, why didn't we do more? And all those complications, as Samantha has written in other context, will look pretty minor.

MARTIN: So you're saying there's a moral duty and there's an agreed-upon framework through the United Nations. But what exactly should they do? If the military - if the regime says we don't want you here, what do they do?

Mr. HIATT: Well, the easiest thing would be if the United Nations agreed and China was willing to go along and Asian countries were willing to go along, a multinational force could easily come by sea and air and begin to deliver the kind of infrastructure for saving people that's needed. What makes this difficult, as Samantha says, is that China's very unlikely to go along and therefore you're unlikely to get official UN approval, and then the question becomes, well, how much are you going to do as we did in Kosovo, outside the auspices of the United Nations?

MARTIN: If the practical reality is that it's unlikely that nation states are going to intervene, what is the purpose of having this conversation?

Mr. HIATT: Well, I think what, you know, what the countries who are interested in saving people right now, including the United States but also France, England, Indonesia, hopefully others, should be working on two tracks. They should be very actively planning an intervention that would take place without the approval of the government. At the same time they should be doing all the things that Samantha talked about in terms of using Ban Ki-moon and others and the Chinese to put pressure on the regime.

But you know, we're already two weeks past - almost, the cyclone. And I think the planning should be going on in case track B is not successful.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Samantha Power of the Carr Center for Human Rights and Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post about whether the world community should consider intervening to help cyclone victims in Myanmar, despite the opposition of the regime.

A Time Magazine reporter wrote about this earlier in the week also, and he was a guest on one of our programs called "Talk of the Nation," and these were some of the comments that the Talk of the Nation blog received after his appearance. Here's one: "Not to justify what the leadership is doing in Burma, but what if Cuba didn't like the way we handled New Orleans, should they have invaded to help?" This is another: "If memory is not failing, didn't the U.S. refuse international assistance during Hurricane Katrina? This is a sovereign government that we, nor the UN, has any right to force to do anything, whether humanitarian or not. Tell me, should the U.S. have been forced to accept aid for Hurricane Katrina victims when it failed to respond?"

You know, obviously, this is not a scientific survey of sort of American public opinion, but this was kind of the consensus of the people who chose to respond. Should that matter? I think the question speaks to the moral authority of the U.S. Fred?

Mr. HIATT: Those are good questions, of course, and national sovereignty is something you can't overlook lightly. I think you have to look case-by-case, and you do have to make moral judgments. This is a government that lost an election in 1990 by a four-to-one margin and has, you know, its crimes against humanity did not begin with the cyclone. It has been committing mass rape and enforced child labor and slavery against its own people now for many, many years. And you know, I think people have to be able to make distinctions between bad governments and truly illegitimate governments, between bad things happening and terrible responses like we saw in Katrina, and legitimate crimes against humanity which threaten hundreds of thousands of lives.

MARTIN: Samantha?

Prof. POWER: I agree with everything that Fred has said. I think that the legitimacy question is a key one, and if that track two planning is to go forward, I think one of the best analogues of the past is maybe not, actually, the Kosovo intervention, but rather the intervention that occurred in East Timor soon thereafter, in the fall of 1999. And what happened there was the Indonesian government, of course a much more open government than that in Burma, but nonetheless one that had been occupying East Timor since 1975. That government faced such pressure from its Asian neighbors that in the end it opened up its doors.

And I think that what one has to think about is because of these issues of U.S. legitimacy or the erosion of U.S. legitimacy internationally, who are the front states that can be peeled away from Asia, from the neighborhood? Who are the countries that can offer the United States at least some cover as it undertakes this planning?

MARTIN: But Samantha, can I push you on Fred's question...

Prof. POWER: Sure.

MARTIN: Which is, are Americans going to be able to look themselves in the mirror five years from now if they - if Americans and the world community did not intervene and you know, two million people die as a result of this - what Fred called "criminal negligence"? Does that matter?

Prof. POWER: I understood the question. Believe me, I certainly don't think we on this call will necessarily be able to look ourselves in the eye, but I think we have to think more broadly about the system as a whole. And it sounds like a bureaucratic thing to say, but the fact of the matter is the United States is already active in Afghanistan, already active in Iraq, already has major national security challenges that it has thrust upon itself by these. Well, in the case of Iraq, of course, very, very detrimental intervention.

There are other countries on the earth, there are 192 countries in the United Nations, and while Fred is right that there's only one country that has the logistic and the military capacity and by some miracle from the heavens happens to be well positioned in the neighborhood to do good in the case of this emergency, we've simply got to get other countries by our side, and not simply for issues of legitimacy but also for issues of capacity. The United States is totally overstretched right now militarily, and if you're talking about air drops, that's one thing, but if you're actually talking about a land incursion of some kind, I mean, you're talking about actually entering a country. You have to have a morning-after vision for what you're going to do, and any notion that the United States is going to the lone country to develop that vision, I think, is a flawed one. Look, the...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Samantha. It's a very difficult question, as I think everybody has said here. Unfortunately, we are out of time. Hopefully we can return - unfortunately, we will probably have to return to this question and I hope we will be able to return to it soon.

Samantha Powers, professor at the Harvard University Carr Center for Human Rights, she joined us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is "Chasing the Flame." It's a biography of the UN envoy killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. We were also joined by Fred Hiatt, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington studio. Thank you both so much for speaking with us on this very difficult question.

HIATT: Thank you.

Prof. POWER: Thank you.

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