U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also said the administration is considering tightening financial sanctions against the regime as part of an effort to force it to open its authoritarian political system and free thousands of political prisoners.
By supporting the commission of inquiry, the Obama administration is committing itself to backing a U.N. investigation of the military junta led since 1992 by Senior Gen. Than Shwe.
The 77-year-old dictator has been accused of leading brutal campaigns against ethnic insurgencies and Burmese dissidents, such as the 2007 crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution," during which scores of protesters, including Buddhist monks, were killed and thousands jailed. Than Shwe's State Peace and Development Council also overturned election results in 1990 that favored the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, who was named a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, remains under house arrest.
"What's important here is that this is not aimed at the people of Burma but at its leadership, particularly at Than Shwe," said a senior administration official.
Human rights organizations welcomed the news.
"I think this is an extremely smart move," said Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. "So long as Burma's military elite believe that their leader's strategy of defying his people and the world is working for them personally, they will continue to resist political compromise at home and engagement with the U.S."
The Obama administration entered office with a desire to shift course on Burma -- both as part of a strategy to improve relations with all the nations of Southeast Asia and as part of a belief that Burma, also known as Myanmar, should not be allowed to become a client state of China.
The administration decided last fall to begin to engage with the Burmese regime. It dispatched high-ranking diplomats and held out the prospect of the resumption of some aid. It opened discussions about Burma's planned upcoming elections in the hope that the regime would allow some measure of democracy. The administration also raised its concerns with Burma about its military relationship with North Korea following reports that Burma was exploring the possibility of a nuclear weapons program.
But Burma has rebuffed the outreach and announced a series of severe restrictions on campaigning ahead of coming elections, prompting the regime's opposition to all but withdraw.
Added another senior administration official: "There have been no positive results on democracy and human rights in our diplomatic engagement."
The commission of inquiry has been urged by the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana. Commissions can be established directly by the U.N. secretary general -- as happened in the case of the Bosnian war crimes commission in the early 1990s. They also could be established by a vote of the Security Council, although China would probably block such a move.
Some debate whether the prospect of a war crimes charge can change the behavior of a regime. Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, was indicted in 2008 and has yet to be arrested.
Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia and one of the main forces behind the devastation of Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s, was arrested after leaving office and went before the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, although he died during his trial. Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor is on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes.
Malinowski said the U.S. decision Tuesday probably won't much change the calculations of a dictator such as Than Shwe but could cause some concern among younger members of the junta.
"There's a whole generation of military elites in Burma who will be making choices in the next few years," he said. "This is aimed at them."