Obama’s olive branches are lifelines for authoritarian regimes

At the heart of President Obama’s foreign policy is a long bet: that American engagement with previously shunned regimes will, over time, lead to their liberalization, without the need for either a messy domestic revolution or a bloody U.S. use of force. By definition, it will be years before we know whether the policy works.

It nevertheless is becoming clear that the regimes on which Obama has lavished attention have greeted his overtures with a counter-strategy. It’s possible, they calculate, to use the economic benefits of better relations to entrench their authoritarian systems for the long term, while screening out any liberalizing influence. Rather than being subverted by U.S. dollars, they would be saved by them.

So far, the dictators’ bet is paying off. The latest evidence of that came Sunday in Burma, when the generals who still rule the country staged an election carefully structured to preserve their power. The constitution under which it was held bans opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president and reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military.