Just like the ending of the Iraq War, Obama merely follows Bush's lead, then takes the credit to himself. Amazing.
In one of those gems that reveal the Obama administration's penchant for taking credit for the work of others, a senior State Department official on a plane to Perth last week for a U.S.-Australia confab spoke to reporters about the president's trip to Burma Monday. The "enormously significant" visit, he said, will highlight what "clearly stacks up as a major early success of the Obama administration."
On the surface, that sounds right. Burma was driven into misery for decades after Gen. Ne Win implemented the "Burmese Way to Socialism" in 1962, but the country of about 55 million has experienced a remarkable transformation in the past two years. The former general now in charge has welcomed more foreign investment, lifted the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, held elections that brought opposition party candidates into parliament, released political prisoners, relaxed press restrictions, and moved to make peace with some of the country's ethnic minorities.
President Obama will surely laud these reforms, enjoying a rare moment of foreign-policy success, when he visits Rangoon as part of a three-day Southeast Asia tour. Yet Burma's political calculations had little to do with Mr. Obama or with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The country's change instead was prompted by—steady yourself, Foggy Bottom—the administration of George W. Bush, who put in place a diplomatic framework that nudged Burma in the right direction when the generals were finally ready to embrace reform.
The Bush foreign policy placed a strong emphasis on human rights and instituted a multilateral effort to pressure the junta, using regional bodies like the 10-member Association for Southeast Asian Nations and international organizations like the United Nations. The Bush team also maintained sanctions against the junta's leaders and steered humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people as best they could.
When the Obama crew took over the State Department, they "reviewed" these policies for months—and then discovered that the status quo was quite appealing. "The results of that review," said Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs said in 2009, "were first, to reaffirm our fundamental goals for Burma, that we want to see a Burma that is at peace, unified, prosperous, stable, respects the rights of all of its citizens, and is democratic. That hasn't changed."
The Bush sanctions were left intact too. The biggest fix? Mr. Marciel said that the Obama team "agreed to begin a dialogue—a senior level dialogue with the government—but also with opposition groups, ethnic minority groups, all of the people who have an important role to play in the country's future."
This was also just a continuation of policy that Mr. Obama inherited. President Bush hosted Charm Tong, a 23-year-old Shan human-rights activist, at the White House in 2005. The Bush State Department urged Burma to engage in "national reconciliation" at every opportunity. When first lady Laura Bush traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand, in August 2008, after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's Irrawaddy Delta and killed more than 130,000 people, she made a point of meeting Burmese refugees. She called on more countries to join the sanctions against the junta's leadership and, as she had in the past, encouraged the generals to make democratic reforms.
The Bush policy mix of sanctions, diplomatic pressure and humanitarian assistance was not exclusively responsible for the Burmese liberalization. Authoritarian rulers by their nature reject outside influence. But despots never retain their grip on power indefinitely.
In 2007, the pro-democracy revolt known as the Saffron Revolution erupted in Burma, years before the Arab Spring. The regime's brutal response resulted in the deaths of at least 30 protesters, a Japanese journalist and—shockingly for the largely Buddhist nation—a number of monks. Then Cyclone Nargis blew in, and the regime's hapless response further enraged the Burmese people.
The generals feared losing their ability to intimidate and control or realized they had to further liberalize to keep their economy from collapsing—or both. But their choices were limited. Turning to China for support was unappetizing—China has a way of dominating weaker neighbors, as in Nepal, Cambodia and Laos. Nor could the generals rely for help on the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, which lacks the political unity or military heft to deter Beijing.
Yet in Ms. Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and heroine of Burma's democracy movement, the regime had a willing partner for negotiating a gradual transition. And the generals knew that if they embraced reform, they would find a dependable partner in Washington. The solution was clear.
The rapprochement is trending in the right direction and the Obama administration has moved quickly to upgrade diplomatic ties and ease sanctions, but it is too early to be sure where it will go. Serious problems remain: The regime still violently represses ethnic minorities, many dissidents remain in jail, and the country is overrun with traffickers in drugs and human beings.
President Bush helped to prepare the way for Burma's recent reforms. It's up to President Obama to press the country's leaders to finish the job.
Ms. Kissel is a member of the Journal's editorial board.