Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Turning the News Upside Down

Covering Secretary Gates’ Statements on Myanmar

I was rather surprised to read that US SecDef Robert Gates had publicly blamed the Myanmar junta for causing the deaths of tens of thousands.

His speech at the Asia Security Conference in Singapore was extensively covered, and produced dozens of headlines such as: Myanmar’s Delay on Aid Cost tens of thousands of lives: Gates; Myanmar junta’s obstruction cost tens of thousands of lives: Gates; Myanmar Aid Stonewalling left tens of thousands dead. Und so veiter.

After all, as I saw it, Gates’ mission in Asia is to advance the image of the United States as an apolitical, disinterested regional humanitarian and security force.

Publicly accusing the Myanmar government of mass murder—even if he privately considered it the case—would seem to be a big step into turbulent political waters for Gates and the US military.

Not to worry. Just lazy headline writing.

From Gates’ prepared remarks:

As you know, American ships and aircraft diverted their earlier Cobra Gold operational plans to help provide, once country approval was received, rapid relief to victims of cyclone Nargis in Burma. Our ships and aircraft awaited country approval so they could act promptly to save thousands of lives – approval of the kind granted by Indonesia immediately after the 2004 tsunami and by Bangladesh after a fierce cyclone just last November. We worked with both nations to alleviate suffering, while fastidiously respecting their sovereignty.

With Burma, the situation has been very different – at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. Many other countries besides the United States also have felt hindered in their efforts. Despite these obstructions, we continue to get help into Burma and remain poised to provide more. Indeed, we have shown in recent weeks our determination to give our entire support to save lives, using every channel to get relief to the victims. We welcome ASEAN’s leadership, and look forward to the quick emergence of a mechanism that can help international assistance reach those who need it.


Note that Gates carefully ascribes the loss of life to “the situation” and uses the passive voice—countries have “felt hindered”—to avoid directly accusing Myanmar of killing thousands of its own citizens.

As for the post-speech Q&A, AP reported:

Gates' comments came a day after he made his strongest public condemnation of the Myanmar government at the conference, saying that Myanmar's rulers "have kept their hands in their pockets" while other countries sought to help cyclone victims.

Gates’ actual remarks make it clear he was characterizing Myanmar’s response to American initiatives, not its disaster relief activities.


``We have reached out to Myanmar multiple times during this crisis in very direct ways,'' Gates said. ``It has not been us that have been deaf and dumb. We have reached out; they have kept their hands in their pockets.''

New York Times headliners committed a similar transgression with the headline “Gates Accuses Myanmar of ‘Criminal Neglect’”.

What he really said:

When asked whether the Myanmar government’s actions were tantamount to genocide, Mr. Gates stopped short of that accusation. “This is more akin, in my view, to criminal neglect,” he said.

I’m not saying that, in his heart, Robert Gates doesn’t think that the Myanmar regime was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, that the junta kept their hands in their pockets instead of helping their people, or that they were guilty of criminal neglect or, for that matter genocide.

But he didn’t say it.

He said something else, and it was important.

The most important takeaway from the Singapore conference was Gates’ affirmation of the importance of sovereignty and his refusal to provide rhetorical justification or concrete support for humanitarian intervention.

In fact, Gates made it clear that all aid from the U.S. military had been predicated upon acquiescence by Myanmar junta and, when he didn’t obtain it after repeated representations, Gates determined that the U.S. Navy probably has no options left but to steam away.

Gates affirmed again there is unanimous opposition in the international community to forcing aid to the Myanmar people suffering in the wake of the devastating cyclone that struck in early May.

"There is great sensitivity all over the world to violating a country's sovereignty," Gates said. "Particularly in the absence of some kind of U.N. umbrella that would authorize it."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that even when the decision is made to pull the four U.S. Navy ships off the coast, the vessels will move away slowly enough to turn back if there is an unexpected change of heart by the Myanmar government.


All in all, a judicious and measured performance by a civil servant who has absorbed the military and diplomatic lessons of Iraq and is unwilling to consider unilateral intervention unless vital American interests are at stake.

The headline could have—should have—read US Turns Away from Humanitarian Intervention in Myanmar: American Ships to Depart.

But it didn’t get reported that way.

A small point, perhaps, but to me an indication that that the media indignation mill has an insatiable demand for grist that accurate reporting simply can’t provide.

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