Snakes in the Grass

The Florida Everglades are reeling from an explosion in the number of deadly Burmese pythons.  By some estimates, there may be as many as 140,000 of them slithering around in a place they don’t belong.  These particular snakes are believed to have gotten their start in the Everglades through the well-intentioned, but ill-considered, action of a few Americans who thought they were doing the humane thing by turning their pet pythons loose in the swampy wilderness.

This story of the Burmese pythons seems like an appropriate metaphor for our time.  After all, another sort of snake in the grass from Burma is currently making its presence known on the world stage for the first time in years, thanks to the Obama administration and its emissary in fact, if not in name: U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.  The motivating good intentions notwithstanding, our global neighborhood is about to get considerably more dangerous.

Over the weekend, Sen. Webb paid court to Than Shwe, the senior general in the brutally repressive junta that has misruled Burma (which it renamed Myanmar) since 1962.  The visitor was rewarded for "engaging" with this pariah regime by securing the release of an ailing American hostage, John Yettaw.  The Burmese arrested Yettaw – a reportedly mentally unstable Vietnam veteran – after he swam across a lake in Rangoon to visit democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, thereby violating the terms of the house arrest to which the latter has been subjected for over 14 years.

Although the junta apparently dismissed out of hand Sen. Webb’s suggestion that Suu Kyi be released, he was afforded an opportunity to pay her a brief visit.  Their conversation occurred shortly after the dissident learned of her punishment for Yettaw’s infraction: a further eighteen months in confinement.  That will be sufficient time to keep Burma’s leading opposition figure out of the so-called "elections" the autocrats have called for next year.

Unfortunately, Sen. Webb’s diplomacy appears to be part of a pattern being established under the Obama administration.   If you are a rogue regime and seize an American, chances are good you can arrange to have a high-level contact with a senior U.S. interlocutor.  Through the latter’s good offices, you can begin the process of "engaging" with the United States on your terms – or, as Candidate Obama famously put it, "without preconditions."

Give Sen. Webb credit for coupling his kow-tow to the Burmese despots with at least a nod to their opposition.  By contrast, during Bill Clinton’s recent visit to Pyongyang, the former president made no such public show of solidarity with the millions enslaved by Kim Jong-Il in North Korea.  Instead, he spent three hours hobnobbing with one of the planet’s most odious dictators, then departed with the two American reporters previously captured by Kim’s regime.  In both cases, however, the way now seems clear for "progress" to be made in normalizing relations with these snakes in the grass.

We must expect any day now a similar opportunity to present itself with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It has recently taken not one, not two, but three Americans hostage.  The mullahs could be forgiven for thinking they are entitled to have a senior U.S. official (past or present) turn up in Tehran, holding out the prospect of better relations and promising to take back to Washington any demands the Iranian regime might convey.

Given Team Obama’s supine behavior in the face of deliberate and demeaning provocations by the North Korean and Burmese regimes, what it calls "the elected president of Iran" – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – will doubtless seek to add to the ignominy of American diplomatic approaches aimed at freeing the latest American captives, fostering improved ties, ending the Iranian nuclear program, etc.

Which of the other rogue state snakes in the grass will be the next to pull this maneuver?  Will it be Syria (already being romanced by Special Envoy George Mitchell)?  How about Venezuela? Or maybe Cuba?

The trouble, as Henry Kissinger recently observed in a Washington Post op.ed. following Bill Clinton’s foray in Pyongyang, is that this process makes every American a potential hostage.  The former Secretary of State wrote:

"It is inherent in hostage situations that potentially heartbreaking human conditions are used to overwhelm policy judgments. Therein lies the bargaining strength of the hostage-taker. On the other hand, at any given moment, several million Americans reside or travel abroad. How are they best protected? Is the lesson of this episode that any ruthless group or government can demand a symbolic meeting with a senior American by seizing hostages or threatening inhuman treatment for prisoners in their hand? If it should be said that North Korea is a special case because of its nuclear capability, does that create new incentives for proliferation?"

The truth of the matter is that the Obama administration – by facilitating if not actively encouraging the Clinton and Webb missions – has indeed invited more hostage-taking.  And, as Dr. Kissinger surmises, it has also created new incentives for nuclear proliferation by establishing that nobody trifles with those who have such weapons (or are about to get them).  It is no coincidence that the next snake in the grass to go nuclear with North Korea’s help may well be Burmese.

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