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On trip to Myanmar, Obama may set record for rapprochement

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YANGON, MYANMAR - NOVEMBER 16: Mugs and flags are displayed in a shop showing US President Barack Obama and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the city prepares for the US Presidents forthcoming visit on November 16, 2012 in Yangon, Myanmar. Barack Obama will become the first US President to visit Myanmar during his four-day tour of Southeast Asia that will also include visits to Thailand and Cambodia. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

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By Max Fisher
Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

President Obama is leaving on Saturday for a visit to Myanmar (once known as Burma), long an international pariah that has just recently begun to reform. He will be the first president to do so, moving with astonishing speed on building ties with this strategically located nation long seen as one of the worst dictatorships.

The country's reform began with a bang in March 2011, when rulers dissolved the half-century-old military junta and transitioned to a civilian government. Myanmar has gradually democratized (though its commitment to free elections remains largely untested), freed hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed restrictions and, perhaps most significantly, moved away from China, its longtime patron.

Hillary Clinton traveled to meet with President Thein Sein and others last November, making her the second secretary of State to go, and Obama will become the first sitting president to go.

The United States has lifted crippling sanctions, allowing foreign investment to flood in. Time from Myanmar's opening to secretary of State visit: eight months. Time to presidential visit: 20 months.

That might be a land-speed record for post-Cold War rapprochement. Some in the Cold War were faster, but the coups and counter-coups and shifting alliances were unique to that bipolar era.

What's driving the Obama administration's remarkable enthusiasm for opening Myanmar right now? It seems largely to be part of the administration's mission to earnestly “pivot” to Asia; the president, on this trip, will also become the first to visit Cambodia.

One big part of this strategy that doesn't get discussed much is the effort to integrate Southeast Asian countries, which are not thrilled about China's rising influence but need some help in uniting against the neighboring giant. Perhaps the administration sees an opening to assert regional leadership now, while China's diplomatic outreaches remain clumsy and unconvincing.

There's another message that the rapid U.S. detente with Myanmar sends, whether deliberately or not: Rogue states that open up might be able to expect rewards from the Americans — and quickly. The administration's willingness to let bygones be bygones with Myanmar, to work with the ruling regime instead of pushing its top figures into international criminal courts, and to reward its reforms “action for action,” as the diplomats put it, would seem to establish some very tempting incentives for other rogue states.

To be sure, each rogue state is its own complicated case. The United States has a lot less baggage with Myanmar than it does with, say, Iran, so it's easier for Washington to put the past aside. And the Burmese relationship is also less encumbered by domestic U.S. politics or by interest groups that might oppose a too-rapid opening. Still, you have to wonder how it looks from Caracas or Riyadh or even Tehran.

Max Fisher anchors WorldViews,The Washington Post's foreign news blog.

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