Amidst the multitude of ongoing Trump administration scandals, the United States government has failed to develop a comprehensive approach to bring an end to or accountability for devastating human rights abuses in Myanmar. That country’s military has waged a campaign of horror since August of 2017 against Rohingya Muslims. The unfolding human rights crisis includes mass killing, gang rape, razed villages, and hundreds of thousands displaced. The United States has dubbed the catastrophe “ethnic cleansing,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly considering whether to declare the atrocities against the Rohingya a genocide. A United Nations panel has issued a scathing report recommending that top Myanmar military officials face trial for genocide and that the Security Council impose an arms embargo on the country.
Yet neither the Trump administration nor the Republican-led Congress has taken any truly consequential action. What’s more, a recent report from Nahal Toosi of Politico indicates that “the administration, invoking questionable grounds of ‘national interest,’ has been permitting the children of some past and present Myanmar military leaders to travel to the United States — despite a years-old law prohibiting such immediate relatives from obtaining U.S. visas.” That 2008 bipartisan sanctions law—named after and introduced by the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), a human rights titan and recipient of the Medal of Freedom—provides that the visa restriction may be waived “only if the President determines and certifies in writing to Congress that travel by the person seeking such a waiver is in the national interests of the United States.”
Yet per Toosi, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch stated, “Given what’s happened over the last year to the Rohingya, re-imposing the strongest targeted sanctions to squeeze the military officials would be the smartest approach.” Instead, the Trump administration has apparently abandoned its otherwise hardline immigration approaches when it comes to Myanmar’s potential military oppressors. Here, it appears that the Trump administration’s scorn for policy honoring human rights eclipses its anti-immigrant zeal. We are left with a glaring juxtaposition.
Taken collectively, the Trump administration’s policies send the following message: When it comes to children fleeing persecution and conflicts, official policy is “zero tolerance,” family separation, and travel bans. But when it comes to the children of those who may have committed human rights atrocities or who otherwise fail to halt them despite being in a position to do so, the Trump administration will put out a welcome mat.
Where is Congress?
There might be reasonable justifications for some of the Myanmar waivers, but the administration has not had to justify its approach to the atrocities in Myanmar and other issues because a supine Congress has failed to demand meaningful explanations.
One would normally expect Capitol Hill leadership to find answers as to why the administration appears to be coddling the offspring of potential perpetrators in Myanmar but simultaneously rips children from their innocent parents’ arms at the U.S.-Mexico border. And how can the administration reconcile its seemingly backwards approach to deterrence? At the border, where wholesale deterrence is cruel, misdirected, and has proved ineffective, the administration insists upon invoking it. But where deterrence might be more appropriate and effective—targeted punishment of those responsible for or in a position to stop the atrocities in Myanmar—the administration is in the business of granting free passes.
Congress should start by scrutinizing the visa waiver notifications previously submitted by the Trump administration. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee should evaluate the nature of the visa grantees’ ties to culpable Myanmar military officials as well as the justifications provided by the administration as to why such waivers were in the “national interest.” After gathering that background information, Congress should bring relevant executive branch officials in to explain and defend those rationales.
But don’t count on Republican leadership in Congress to hold the administration accountable. In a regrettable display of indifference to the Rohingya crisis, Congress removed a bipartisan provision from the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have imposed sanctions related to the calamity. Notwithstanding support for the provision from the recently deceased Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), after whom the NDAA was titled, “Senate Majority Leader [Mitch McConnell (R-KY)] insisted that there be no Burma sanctions in the NDAA,” according to a House aide, per Niels Lesniewski of Roll Call.
And in other contexts, Congress has left important questions unanswered and has abstained from issuing subpoenas to compel the administration to provide information. There are scores of issues that Congress could examine: the family separation policy at the border, Trump’s relations with Russia, the extent of administration support for Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen, the forces behind the military transgender ban, and many other controversial policies. But as to Myanmar visa restriction waivers, Congress required the Executive to provide notice and justification for each waiver as an oversight-forcing trigger. Rather than let those questionable Myanmar waivers stack up in a committee drawer somewhere, Congress needs to follow up on those notices and demand answers.
Electoral consequences in the November midterms?
History will assign the Trump administration some degree of moral culpability for a potential genocide in Myanmar if it does not ratchet up its efforts to address the Rohingya crisis. The Treasury Department recently imposed sanctions on several officials and military units in Myanmar—surely a step in the right direction. These measures, however, are hardly an answer for the administration’s lack of serious action up until this point—it had sanctioned only one military official for the Rohingya crisis before this month—or for the practice of granting visa waivers on dubious grounds. And with November looming, it’s worthwhile to also consider how the administration’s affirmative practice of granting these travel waivers—as well as likely congressional inaction in probing this misstep and others—might resonate with voters.
New polling suggests Republicans might suffer on national security and foreign policy grounds in the midterms, creating an opportunity for Democrats to wrestle away voter perceptions of superior prowess on national security and foreign policy, a mantle traditionally claimed by Republicans. According to a poll commissioned by National Security Action, 56% of voters believe that “America’s standing in the world” is diminishing, and 57% believe “Trump is making America less respected.” Moreover, voters “are more likely to trust Democrats over Trump when they disagree on national security issues.” Plus, “in a generic ballot, voters preferred Congressional Democrats over Republicans, and that edge is sustained when voters were asked to consider their vote in terms of a Republican who would support Trump’s national security approach or a Democratic who would oppose it.”
The collective judgment of these voters is apt. Indeed, according to a Gallup survey conducted during 2017, Trump’s first year in office, “approval of U.S. leadership across 134 countries and areas stands at a new low of 30%,” whereas that figure sat at 48% in 2016, Barack Obama’s final year in office. Even George W. Bush demanded more global respect for the United States as he left office—34% in 2008—even though the conflict he unleashed by invading Iraq in 2003 was still raging at the time.
Michael Posner, a former State Department official, penned an account of his recent visit to Myanmar that leaves little doubt that the Trump administration’s Myanmar approach is damaging America’s global standing and leadership:
[The] catastrophic conditions underscored the decline of U.S. leadership on human rights in this part of the world and globally . . . [W]hat was most striking about our delegation’s visit was the complete absence of U.S. leadership on any of these issues. Although U.S. officials have condemned the attacks against the Rohingya and other extreme abuses, the administration lacks an overarching diplomatic vision or plan of action . . . Activists and others in Myanmar are desperate for stronger U.S. leadership and deeply disappointed by the “small ball” approach of the current administration. While there is widespread public attention to the declining U.S. leadership in NATO and vis-a-vis Russian, the U.S. failure to put its diplomatic muscle behind a strong human rights agenda in places like Myanmar may be the more devastating consequence of the president’s America First approach to global engagement.
It’s no wonder that America’s global reputation is waning when Trump displays an odd affinity for brutal dictators—from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—even as he antagonizes allied democracies. Other moves, such as the administration’s desertion of the Paris climate agreement and the sheer inhumanity of its immigration policies, also contribute to the erosion of America’s worldwide standing and respect. Republicans in Congress need to demand answers and the administration needs to provide convincing explanations. As it stands now, the Myanmar waivers fit squarely into the pattern of slapdash, wrongheaded policymaking and messaging in Washington that neither Americans nor the rest of the world can trust.