THE United States has finally admitted it is at a loss as to the way forward in its Myanmar policy. It has startlingly owned up to the fact that sanctions against Myanmar not only made its rulers more obstinate but has caused the US to lose all influence in that country.

The superpower is only now facing up to the limits of sanctions as a foreign policy tool, even as it is about to see such a futile and self-defeating policy instrument outlive the very durable Fidel Castro of tiny Cuba.

Still, it is a big jump from such a sobering realisation to any inkling by the US government and its people of how good intentions in foreign policy often have a way of leading targeted countries and peoples ever closer to hell.

Sanctions against Myanmar could hardly be taken seriously if it were only rich Western countries imposing them, however great their economic might may be.

For starters, this is, after all, Myanmar, long fed on the virtue of isolationism. If it were breaking out of its isolationist shell, logically it would be looking closer to home for economic partners. It would not have to look far. The country’s Southeast Asian neighbours have all been united in their conviction that if the proud country is to be moved at all, it would have to be through a policy of engagement, not the condescension of punitive sanctions.

Western nations imposing sanctions on Myanmar compounded their condescension with a blithe disregard for the opinion of other Asian powers. The sanctions regime is seeded to fail if even such Western allies as Japan and India and, of course, China, the latter two sharing a common border with Myanmar, also did not believe in it.

All of which makes one wonder if the sheer stupidity of the sanctions policy was actually conceived as a credible policy instrument or more as a cynical, relatively cost-free sop to the easily outraged sensibilities of Western citizens over difficult conditions elsewhere in the world that do not lend themselves readily to any neat solutions.

There is an encouraging new trend in the US with the advent of the Obama administration to see and engage the world as it is, rather than trying to mould the world to fit into what Americans and Europeans would like it to be. But these are admittedly early days and we will have to wait and see if words heralding the return of realpolitik in Western foreign policy are indeed matched with actions to that effect.

That, however, still leaves the wretched conditions of most people in Myanmar much as they are. They, like their famous democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, are as much unfortunate hostages of the thoughtlessness of Western policymakers as of their own proud but insecure military rulers.

The democratic forces in Myanmar suffer from their close identification with prominent Western sympathisers who believe their governments hold pre-eminent sway anywhere around the globe and can bring about great wonders simply by waving a magical wand and expressing their wishes out loud.

Perhaps it is still not too late to bring Western countries in to Myanmar, if only so that Western good intentions are not wasted on elaborate preaching and moralising antics. But they will certainly not get in on their own uncompromising terms.

Western nations dreading being shut out completely and permanently from a potentially rich and strategic nation such as Myanmar would still have to pass through the door of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Myanmar is a member.

The original game plan was for Myanmar to be reintegrated into the community of nations through membership in Asean. That plan remains good, notwithstanding Western efforts to turn Myanmar into a pariah nation. Both the West and Myanmar, in different ways, over-extended themselves and painted themselves into their own respective corners.

In spite of Myanmar’s supposed stain on the good name of Asean, Western nations are falling over themselves to name envoys to the Asean secretariat in Jakarta. That should be as good an omen as any of prospects for a better Myanmar, minus all the international histrionics and unrealistic expectations that do so much damage all round.