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Chalk up one for Sen. Jim Webb

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By Rick Howell

    There is probably no politician in Washington harder to figure out - and thus more interesting to watch - than Virginia’s Jim Webb.

    The nation just got another lesson in the curious story of this member of the Senate, who, even though he’s only been in office just shy of three years now, is the state’s “senior senator.”

    Webb went, of all places, to the military dictatorship of Southeast Asia’s Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and got an American released from prison. In the process, he met with the reclusive leader of the military junta and with a lady who may be the most prominent advocate for democratic reform in the oppressed world, Aung San Suu Kyi.

    Suu Kyi, a former presidential candidate, has been held under house arrest more than once in that country. If not for the international reputation she has garnered over the years, she probably wouldn’t be alive.

    The American Webb got released, John Yettaw, was sentenced to seven years hard labor simply for making an unauthorized visit to Suu Kyi’s house. Yettaw was in bad health and family members thought he might not be able to endure the incarceration. Now he won’t have to…

    As this was written, the full extent of the Obama administration’s role in Webb’s trip wasn’t quite known. But it’s unlikely any member of Congress would make such a trip without some approval from the White House. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had recently complained of frustration in making any progress in Myanmar, despite the imposition of economic sanctions put in place after the junta refused to turn over power to Suu Kyi’s party, the winner of 1990 elections.

    Not everyone was happy with Webb’s trip, the first to that country by a member of Congress in more than a decade. Some who have watched Myanmar for a long time think leaders of the junta will use the trip to somehow improve its own image while still refusing to do anything to yield control.

    Maybe. But for Jim Webb, this is a win-win situation. He has raised his own national and international profile, and done so in an arena where he is an expert. He’s chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Due to his time in Vietnam, Southeast Asia is something Jim Webb knows an awful lot about.

    This wasn’t the first time Webb has raised eyebrows. He famously (infamously, to some) began his Senate term by refusing to engage in small talk with George W. Bush about “your boy,” as Bush put it, in Iraq. Webb abruptly reminded the president that his own son and the rest of our troops there should be brought out of that country.

    The senator has also gotten some national attention for promoting prison reform, an important subject vastly underappreciated by most Americans. We incarcerate incredible numbers of our own citizens at an alarming rate, at much expense to the taxpayers. A lot of these people are in jail for non-violent, drug-related offenses, and could certainly be punished in other ways.

    But don’t expect this issue to be embraced by middle America anytime soon, and don’t expect Jim Webb to drop it, either.

    Webb was, by many accounts, a reluctant candidate. His campaign methods (he’s not exactly comfortable “kissing babies”) were exasperating to many Democrats. Some think he won only because of George Allen’s “macaca moment,” but don’t tell that to Webb.

    Whatever you think of the first-term Democrat (Liberal? Conservative? Who knows?), he is carving out a unique identity in American politics. Keep your eyes on Jim Webb; it’s likely to remain a fascinating story.

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.