So who’s going to run relief operations over the junta’s heads?

America, Europe and a coalition of the willing

It should be abundantly clear by now to any thinking person that Burma’s generals are not about to open up their country to foreign relief workers, even if they somehow agree to accept foreign relief supplies. It should also be abundantly clear that in doing so, the generals would be responsible for making the humanitarian disaster worse, the recovery longer, and the human cost higher. It should also be abundantly clear that the generals don’t care.

So all those who are trying to negotiate with the junta can only be hoping that Burma and Cyclone Nargis will be buried under the rubble of disasters elsewhere, the Sichuan earthquake, the Jaipur bombing (at least for India) and the latest twist in the US presidential election campaign.

Countries like India–that have some leverage with Burma—are quietly delivering relief goods; more than a week after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, it is possible to discern that India’s strategy is a calibrated, low-key approach, that balances the objective of keeping communication channels (with the junta)open while delivering humanitarian relief goods.

What about countries—like the United States and Europe—that don’t quite have working relationships with the Burmese regime? Well, Anne Applebaum has it right—a “coalition of the willing” is exactly what the situation needs. Only the United States has the capacity to make a meaningful difference to the relief effort. It would be justified in going into Burma on a humanitarian mission, without sanction from the Burmese regime or the UN Security Council. India should support such an initiative, but is likely to take a neutral position. It is extremely unlikely, though, that the US will act. Not because of regard for international law, not because of what happened over Iraq but because it might not see it as important enough to US interests. [Update: Robert Kaplan invokes the pottery barn rule]

It is interesting to see the European Union call for forceful international intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. Given that Europe has no military assets of its own in the region that it can deploy at short notice, it is hard to avoid the impression that it sees its own responsibility to protect as largely moral. So, ironically, the Europeans have to convince the Americans that, well, a “coalition of the willing” is necessary.