New heights of hypocrisy on Burma

My enthusiasm for an amphibious assault on the Irrawaddy delta is extremely limited. I appear, once again, to be the weirdo.

On Tuesday former Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy surfaced in this newspaper calling for us to exercise the so-called "responsibility to protect" (R2P) in the Myanmar formerly known as Burma. What? Are you still talking? How could anyone take seriously the proposal to send an army we haven't got to an Apocalypse Now up-river to Rangoon?

Sorry, that would be Yangon now. I bet they even changed the name of the river. Yup, it says online the Irrawaddy is now the Ayeyerwady. But it's still wet. Look at a map. The starting point of Mr. Axworthy's "plan" seems to be a massive amphibious assault on a steaming, immense, swampy river delta half-way around the world. About the level of practicality one had come to expect from him.

I'm not making light of the tragic situation in Burma produced by natural disaster piled on horrible government. Quite the reverse. I'm pointing out that these things are so serious that we have a very definite responsibility to make sense when discussing them.

Which is why I wouldn't start with Lloyd Axworthy. He was a vocal critic of free trade while in opposition in the 1980s, a misjudgment that would have dented the self-confidence of a lesser man. His vaunted ban on land mines hasn't stopped terrorists in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003 using "Improvised Explosive Devices" which are home-made land mines.

He also held a senior national security post in a government that badly neglected Canada's military. He spent years bloviating about the "responsibility to protect" while signally neglecting its practical counterpart, the ability to do so, the very incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt's warning about combining the unbridled tongue with the unready hand. And Mr. Axworthy never explained where he and his Chrétien-era colleagues acquired either the legal or moral right to override the sovereignty of other nations. He just seemed convinced he was so incredibly smart, well-meaning and persuasive that other people just couldn't not do what he wanted, and that now includes invading Burma.

To my amazement, his proposal is turning out to be the conventional folly. "UN should force Burma to accept aid for cyclone victims: Bernier" was the front-page headline in this newspaper Wednesday, over a story that said "Canada is pushing the United Nations Security Council to press Burma's military dictators to permit international aid to reach cyclone victims, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said yesterday. The move comes as the Conservative government faces mounting pressure to back the UN's 'responsibility to protect' doctrine..." And France has already urged the Security Council to invoke R2P.

So Canada is pushing the UN to press Burma because the Tories are under increasing pressure. This stuff is so deep somebody's going to get the bends. But how, I ask you, is it different to invade Burma to stop a humanitarian disaster inflicted by a brutal, demented government than to invade Iraq to do so? Other than Burma is bigger, harder to reach and a lot wetter.

I ask you not because you suggested it but because I'm far more likely to get a sensible answer from you than from Lloyd Axworthy. Which may not narrow the field much. But as his idea seems to be catching on I hope someone is prepared to explain the legal, moral and practical justification for his proposal.

Inflicting aid on Burma by force is an idea so silly it even made me welcome the Canadian expert quoted in the Globe and Mail on Tuesday urging the world community to carry out covert drops of food and water in defiance of both Burma and its Chinese patrons (yes, the same Chinese patrons who wield a veto in the UN Security Council which people expect to invoke R2P). I fear a certain amount of air power would still be required, in case, for instance, the Chinese air force noticed you flying around up there. But at least it would spare us hitting the beaches in force, rifle in one hand and food package in the other.

Well, not us exactly. The essence of Mr. Axworthy's suggestion seems to be: It would improve human rights in Burma to have Russia and China invade it. Or was the idea to have George Bush blast his way in, kick out the tyrants and impose order and liberty? A sorry climb-down after all that lovely America-bashing, to come begging the loan of their army.

Unless of course it's just a bunch of politicians yakking to cover the fact that they don't even realize they have no options. Which is pretty ugly... though not compared to storming the Irrawaddy beaches only to find they're literally a quagmire.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]