The horror was compounded when the junta — long remarkable for its brutality, irrationality and inscrutability — refused to freely allow outside aid. The regime kept American and French naval ships offshore, refusing to permit the landing of supplies. Foreign plane shipments of assistance were impounded. Aid workers were denied permission to enter the delta. What little assistance was accepted was distributed by the Burmese military, which even interfered with attempts by Burmese citizens to help those in need. Before the cyclone hit, few people would have imagined that the junta’s reputation could fall any lower. But fall it did.
As the misery of the Burmese people increased, so did support for military intervention. The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt pointed to UN Security Council Resolution 1674, passed three years ago, which established “the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, whose report undergirded the resolution, also had called for applying the principle during “overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope.”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, among others, invoked the so‐called “responsibility to protect” to force aid upon the SPDC. He left unspecified what that would mean beyond a Security Council resolution insisting on cooperation. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband argued that “All instruments of the UN should be available,” including, apparently, military force. One website insisted: “No more waiting for permission. UK, U.S., and France must deliver aid now.”
Slate columnist Anne Applebaum called for consideration of “alternatives” in order to help “the Burmese even against the will of their irrational leaders.” Ideas on exactly what to do varied from full‐scale military intervention to more limited measures — dropping aid from planes, flying food from ships via helicopter, or convoying assistance across the Thai border and daring the junta to shoot. And while Applebaum and others advocated a multilateral effort, no expedition would have been mounted without the United States. For America to get engaged would have risked inaugurating a third war in a distant and rugged country with a fractured polity and deep ethnic divisions, not to mention one with its own long‐running guerrilla conflict.
The best case would have been a climb down by the junta. Or a couple of short firefights, ending any interference by the regime. But more concerted resistance would have threatened the lives of military personnel, aid workers and storm victims alike. Kenneth Bacon of Refugees International boldly declared: “forceful efforts to interfere with relief deliveries would turn the responsibility to protect into a right to protect.” But that would have required more forthright intervention, including military strikes or “boots on the ground.”
Widespread conflict almost certainly would have left the Burmese people worse off and justified the regime’s fear of an American invasion similar to the 2003 attack on Iraq. Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution and David I. Steinberg of Georgetown explained that “Cyclone Nargis appeared to provide a perfect opening for a similar operation,” especially since “the United States has been conducting annual military exercises with neighboring Thailand, historically the great enemy” of Burma.
Of course, any fighting would have led to proposals for regime change and nation‐building. No doubt, Burma needs to be remade. But not by the United States. And not at a time when Washington was very busy elsewhere in the world dealing with other bitter, even intractable conflicts. Indeed, sweeping away the SPDC would not have resolved the relationship between the central government and the various ethnic tribes, such as the Karen, in the east, which have been fighting for autonomy since Burma achieved independence.
For understandable reasons, then, most policy makers remained unenthusiastic about attempting to coerce Burma. John Holmes, UN Undersecretary‐General for Humanitarian Affairs, opined: “I’m not sure that invading Burma would be a very sensible option.” And the SPDC gradually opened the delta to Western aid even as it tried to profit from the international community’s activities. Three months later Holmes reported that “a much‐feared second wave of deaths from starvation or disease has not happened.” He also said that “This is now a normal international‐relief operation.”
The Burmese military’s turnaround led some NGOs to develop a “strange new respect” for the SPDC. For instance, one unnamed UN program director told the New York Times that after the Burmese recognized they could not handle the disaster, “they did a lot. A huge national response occurred.” Last October the International Crisis Group reported that developments since the storm