On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Derek Mitchell to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in 22 years.
Mitchell’s nomination is the latest in a series of steps the Obama administration has taken to support Burmese President Thein Sein’s nascent political and economic reforms. Previous steps have included the easing of sanctions and Hillary Clinton’s trip to Burma in late 2011, the first time a U.S. secretary of state had visited Burma in more than half a century. Alongside Mitchell’s appointment, the administration announced that the U.S. is suspending, though not removing, all economic and financial sanctions on Burma. U.S. arms embargoes will remain in place, however, and the State Department later said it will seek to “target what we call the spoilers, the bad actors within the system” through other economic instruments.
“As an iron fist has unclenched in Burma, we have extended our hand, and are entering a new phase in our engagement on behalf of a more democratic and prosperous future for the Burmese people,” Obama said on Thursday, echoing a line from his inauguration speech.
Mitchell’s nomination had been expected for some time and was first reported by The Cable on April 5 and confirmed by the Financial Times the following day. The day before The Cable story broke, moreover, the State Department said the administration was “very close” to naming an ambassador and was just waiting on Burma’s approval of its nominee.
Mitchell brings strong credentials to the position. An adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, Mitchell began the administration as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. He served in that position until August 2011, when the White House announced Mitchell would serve in the newly minted position of Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.
In this role, Mitchell has been the administration’s point man on facilitating an opening with Burma. In 2007, Mitchell had advocated offering incentives to the Burmese government to open up in a Foreign Affairs article he co-authored with Michael Green, an Asia expert who served in the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.
In his role as policy coordinator for Burma, Mitchell has worked closely with Aung San Suu Kyi, including holding joint press conferences together. Mitchell reportedly has strong support on Capitol Hill, which should make for an easy confirmation process. The Human Rights Community is also fond of Mitchell; when news of Mitchell’s nomination first broke in April, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch said, “He’s done a fantastic job and his appointment to be the ambassador would signal that center of action is shifting from Washington to Nay Pyi Taw.”
During the Bill Clinton administration, Mitchell worked as a special adviser on East Asian affairs at the Pentagon. In this role, he was the primary author of the U.S. Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, which called for bolstering the U.S. military posture in the region, deepening economic ties and promoting democracy. The strategy, which was written in 1998, has yet to be updated.
During the George W. Bush administration, Mitchell served as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he founded and directed its Southeast Asia program.
Zachary Keck is an editorial assistant for The Diplomat.