He reshaped the federal judiciary. He made history as the longest-serving Senate GOP leader. But Mitch McConnell has unfinished business more than 8,000 miles from the halls of Congress.
There’s no more consistent or surprising through line to McConnell’s 36-year career than promotion of democracy in Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation of 55 million. McConnell’s championing of representative government in Myanmar, mostly run by a military junta since it declared its independence in 1948, is so vital to his identity that after a recent military coup there, President Joe Biden consulted with the GOP leader to coordinate the U.S. response.
The White House’s discussions with McConnell strengthened the U.S. handling of post-coup Myanmar policy, said Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who told POLITICO that he also discussed the issue with the Kentucky Republican. Involving McConnell so closely has helped the Biden administration create a united front with lawmakers in both parties as they push toward a common goal of restoring Myanmar’s legitimately elected government, led by longtime McConnell ally Aung San Suu Kyi.
The White House-McConnell talks on Myanmar have paid off in another way: earning rare praise from a GOP leader famously monk-like in his on-message opposition.
“On the domestic front, I have not yet witnessed something that I’ve been happy about,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview. “But in this area, I think their instincts are good. I think they’re trying to do the right thing.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, slipped back into military rule in February after its generals orchestrated a coup against Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. While Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s most popular politician and retains an incalculably valuable ally in McConnell, she has faced withering criticism for downplaying allegations that her nation’s military was waging a genocide against the country’s Muslim minority — long before the coup sent her back under house arrest in Yangon.
Now U.S. efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar reflect both the advantage of McConnell’s decades-long engagement there and the strange-bedfellows randomness of a Democratic president working smoothly with his biggest political opponent. McConnell’s interest in Myanmar is little-known to the general public but remains a defining aspect of a legacy that he’s already cemented on multiple domestic issues, from the judiciary to campaign finance.
“Senator McConnell has played an important leadership role promoting an immediate return to democracy in Burma, ensuring those responsible for the coup and the devastating violence against civilians are held to account, and standing firmly with the people of Burma as they peacefully resist military oppression,” Sullivan said, a nod to the Republican’s efforts over the years.
You won’t hear a member of the Biden administration laud McConnell like that on practically any other subject. In a 2019 speech, McConnell famously quipped: “People don’t always expect the guy that my Democratic colleagues call the grim reaper to be focused on human rights and democracy promotion.”
When McConnell first took notice of Myanmar in the early 1990s, it was considered an obscure fascination with relatively little significance on the world stage — not to mention an area where U.S. legislators would be hard-pressed to make a difference.
After Suu Kyi’s party dominated Myanmar’s elections in 1990, the military stepped in and placed the longtime democracy activist under house arrest, where she spent much of the next 20 years. Her rise once freed in 2010 — and the country’s democratic trajectory — was meteoric: she soon ran for office and rose to become her country’s prime minister in 2016. McConnell secretly exchanged notes with Suu Kyi while she was holed up at home and visited her in Yangon in 2012 before hosting her in Kentucky that same year.
“He’s been frustrated at times that, on both sides of the aisle, the White House and the State Department hasn’t always come up with effective Burma policies,” said Kelley Currie, a former top State Department official who worked closely with McConnell’s staff as an appropriations aide on Capitol Hill in the 1990s.
“His job is really to keep the administration focused on action," Currie added of McConnell. "The most important thing he can do is continue to keep them focused on the issue and on developing a more aggressive response.”
In recent years, Myanmar has taken on a much greater strategic importance for the U.S. as administrations of both parties try to blunt the influence of China, a neighboring nation. Conditions on the ground there have grown more dire, however, since senior generals toppled Suu Kyi in February even after her party dominated in last year’s elections. Leaders of Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, have alleged that the elections were fraudulent.
Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, killing more than 600 civilians including dozens of children. The U.S. and allied countries have imposed sanctions on the Myanmar military, but Washington policymakers of all stripes agree that more must be done to stop the bloodshed.
“Americans hate the fact that some problems can only be worked on, not solved conclusively. It’s in our DNA,” said Franklin Huddle, who served as the top American diplomat in Myanmar from 1990 to 1994. “And this holds very much true for foreign policy.”
Enter McConnell, whose influence over the future of Myanmar has grown alongside his power in the U.S. capital. While he has not spoken directly with Suu Kyi since the coup, a GOP aide who works closely with McConnell on Myanmar said the party’s Senate leader is in regular contact with the Biden administration as it seeks to restore relative peace in Yangon.
“Having no daylight between McConnell’s position and the Biden administration’s position is important because it suggests that on this issue there is absolute consensus and commitment,” said Robin Cleveland, who advised McConnell on foreign policy through the 1980s and 1990s and was instrumental as McConnell crafted the original U.S. sanctions against Myanmar. “Continuing to draw attention to the horrific and tragic events is important.”
In a phone interview with POLITICO Friday, McConnell called on the Biden administration to raise the issue at the United Nations Security Council, putting China and Russia on the spot to ensure that interest in Myanmar’s struggle does not abate. McConnell highlighted America’s unique ability to elevate and draw attention to parts of the world where adversarial nations often hope to wait out firestorms until international interest wanes.
“Our ability to influence this from halfway around the world is limited,” McConnell said. “But we do have tools.”
“The lion share of the burden is on the State Department and the administration,” he added. “But in any way that congressional action needs to be a part of this: Count me in.”
Tending his ‘pet issue’
McConnell’s 30-year journey on what he has called his “pet issue” began in earnest in 1986 when, shortly after his first election to the Senate, he openly challenged then-President Ronald Reagan over the White House’s refusal to punish the apartheid government in South Africa.
As the former McConnell adviser Cleveland tells it, the then-freshman senator returned to Washington after spending a weekend in Kentucky reading about South Africa’s horrific apartheid conditions and told her that the U.S. should speak out more forcefully against the regime there to support Nelson Mandela, the leader of the opposition.
McConnell then worked with Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on a sweeping plan to slap harsh economic sanctions on South Africa. Reagan vetoed the legislation, but the Senate voted overwhelmingly to override his veto in the fall of 1986. At the time, McConnell said Reagan was “ill-advised” and “wrong,” adding that he was proud of that vote. (Democrats even invoked it this year as they fruitlessly appealed for McConnell’s vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump.)
A few years later, McConnell watched in horror as the military invalidated Suu Kyi’s victory in the 1990 elections. From his perch as chair of the foreign operations subpanel on the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell later crafted the original economic sanctions package against Myanmar, effectively isolating the country.
“There’s an arc to his work,” Cleveland said, recalling that McConnell saw sanctions as “the necessary and the right policy approach in South Africa — to essentially support an electorate that had been disenfranchised. And over time he became involved because the people of Burma voted and they were denied the outcome, too.”
Others who worked for McConnell at the time, including former top aide Janet Mullins Grissom, cited McConnell’s earlier support for the civil-rights movement in the U.S. and his subsequent work for his mentor, the late Sen. and civil rights supporter John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.), as animating factors.
“That’s the lens through which he viewed the apartheid vote,” said Grissom, who also managed McConnell’s 1984 Senate campaign. “And from that, he began his real engagement on siding with the good guys and looking at the importance of supporting democracy and human rights around the world.”
Betting on the ‘best hope’
While McConnell has received bipartisan praise for his support of Suu Kyi over the years, he’s faced criticism for standing by her even as the United Nations faulted her in 2018 for what it dubbed a genocide against Rohingya Muslims in her country.
After the widespread killing and abuse of Rohingya emerged, lawmakers from both parties proposed sanctions on Myanmar officials believed to be carrying out the atrocities; McConnell blocked that bill, drawing colleagues’ ire. McConnell insisted that the crackdown was out of Suu Kyi’s control and argued that undermining her government would hurt democracy itself in Myanmar, especially when the country had come so far since its initial military junta.
The then-majority leader often reminded other senators that Suu Kyi was the “best hope” for a democratic Myanmar. His confidants said that his defense of her came from a “long view” of how the country can become a stable democracy.
McConnell’s support for Suu Kyi has occasionally "made him one of the most powerful advocates of a principled American policy towards the country,” a former senior State Department official said. “And at times, he’s been seen as an obstacle because he’s been reluctant to pressure Suu Kyi or disagree with her when she herself has been on the wrong side."
For his part, McConnell pointed to the most recent military coup as evidence that his approach was correct. Suu Kyi should not have been “thrown under the bus" by everyone from his Senate colleagues to world leaders who were trying to “measure her performance by western standards," the GOP leader argued.
“I still think today that — and the recent election which led to the coup proves it further — that she’s the only one with a real following there,” McConnell said. “There’s no other hope for a way forward in Burma but Aung San Suu Kyi."