"Obama is soft. McCain is a warrior," challenged a former political prisoner. Others in the room readily nodded in agreement.
This sentiment is based on the belief that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential nominee for this November, would be more likely to risk engagement and compromise with Burma's generals. The room I was in was comprised solely of those in vocal opposition to the current military regime and staunch supporters of the National League for Democracy.
Their demands for their country were steadfast and uncompromising, and they looked to an American President to be equally unwavering in the fight of good versus evil – a facet of the Bush Presidency that has propelled the much maligned 43rd President to unprecedented heights of popularity in Burma.
But this collection of activists and politicians need not fret over the results to come in three months time. Whether Obama or John McCain, the Republican nominee, Burma can rest assured that American policy and rhetoric vis-à-vis the Southeast Asian country will stay true to the path outlined by the outgoing administration: a rigid sanctions approach combined with vocal support for the aspirations of the political opposition while remaining firm in the avowal that a solution must come from inside Burma.
"While, ultimately, change must come from within Burma, the international community has an important role to play to signal strong support for the courageous Burmese people. I have supported sanctions against Burma and welcome the additional sanctions the President announced," spoke Senator Obama at the onset of the Burmese junta's violent suppression of last year's Saffron Revolution.
While aping the need to pressure China and other regional players to play a more constructive role in bringing change to Burma, McCain reiterated last September that he would approve of "any trade and economic sanctions at our disposal" in support of Burma's democratic opposition.
Despite his campaign formerly employing two lobbyists at one time on the payroll of the Burmese junta, anticipation of a Burma policy by a McCain White House requires scant debate.
The Republican nominee who praised Aung San Suu Kyi after meeting with her in 1996, a Vietnam veteran, former prisoner of war and husband to a wife who has already auditioned to assume the mantle from First Lady Laura Bush as the voice of the Burmese opposition in the White House – Senator McCain can be readily relied upon, if President, to hold firm the Burma line increasingly espoused by the White House since the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act.
An Obama Presidency, on the other hand, requires a little more explanation in order to assuage the fears of opposition stalwarts inside Burma.
Senator Obama, though oscillating to a degree, has consistently held out the possibility of some level of diplomatic initiative and engagement with governments that Washington does not see eye to eye with. Last month, referring to an announcement by the Bush Administration of a limited opening with leaders of Iran, the Illinois Senator reasoned: "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy."
Yet apparently even more disconcerting for advocates of a hardline position against the Burmese junta, were Obama's words during a debate held one year ago.
At the time he was asked, "Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?"
"I would," responded Obama. "And the reason is this: The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous. Ronald Reagan constantly spoke to the Soviet Union at a time when he called them an evil empire. He understood that we may not trust them, and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward."
However, upon scrutiny, this response actually reaffirms the conclusion that an Obama Burma policy will mirror that of a Bush or McCain approach.
Where, in the question, is Burma, Sudan, Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe?
For very good reasons, the question omitted such regimes. If Obama chooses to expend political capital to further a policy of engagement with governments deemed hostile to American interests, he will have to prioritize where to concentrate his efforts and spend his leeway. All the countries in the question would assume priority over the likes of Burma. Burma would serve an Obama White House as an opportunity to reach out to opposing political camps, while able to defend its position behind a firewall of moral posturing.
American moral interests, couched in the language of democracy and human rights, versus American geopolitical and economic interests. The countries listed in the question, with the possible exception of Cuba for which an historical and geographic connection masked in ideology predominates, command at least the potential to impose themselves on the world stage – even if only at a regional level – in a manner inimical to tangible American interests. Burma, in contrast, does not pose any such danger to the United States.
An Obama foreign policy of engagement will seek to counter criticism of being "soft" by realizing gains in national security, access to energy resources, mitigating the War on Terror and resolving regional disputes deemed within a geographic sphere of influence. Without decisive gains to be realized in Burma in these areas (yes, even with Burma's natural gas and oil reserves), the afflicted Southeast Asian country will remain beholden to an American policy dominated by morality.
And what for those that would prefer to see a White House that seeks to explore engagement with Naypyitaw? For that to happen, proponents of such a policy would have to succeed in transcending Burma from a personal, feel good issue undemanding of political conviction to a subject relevant to American power calculations in ensuring a world safe and receptive to America's overarching domestic interests.
Morality, legality and politics – these concerns understood together will determine the next White House policy regarding Burma. And when viewed as a composite entity, these factors will work to discourage engagement while stymieing any talk of intervention in its infancy. In other words, for Burma at least – and a welcome message to Burmese advocates of staying the course, the ensuing United States administration will without question usher in "Four more years."