Quick on the draw

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Malacanang had not yet appointed him to the Department of National Defense as of this writing. But former Philippine National Police Chief Hermogenes Ebdane was talking last week as if it were all over except the shouting.

That meant either one of three things: he’s indeed Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s choice, and the Palace is sending up a trial balloon to gauge public reaction to the idea; he wants the post so badly he’s second-guessing her; or both.

Whatever’s the case, Ebdane defended his yet-to-be-announced appointment by describing resigned Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz’ and the Feliciano Commission’s preference for a civilian Secretary of Defense as “unfair and biased.”

A “lot of problems” in the DND, said Ebdane, “could only be addressed by someone from the Armed Forces.”

Ebdane apparently looks at himself as “from the Armed Forces,” which is how most Filipinos see the police. They think the PNP’s a military institution, and policemen and women military people.

It’s an accurate perception in Ebdane’s case, as in that of many other police officials. While he was Chief of the Philippine National Police, a civilian agency, like others of his generation Ebdane’s a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy.

Ebdane the military man implied that he would bring to the post of defense chief the military habit of quick decision-making.

“In combat you do not have the luxury of time to think for too long.” That, said Ebdane, is the difference between “us in the police and the civilians.”

Ebdane is of course right. As a general rule military and police people don’t think as long as civilian officials tend to, primarily because a few seconds’ delay can mean the difference between life and death in combat.

But assuming he’s appointed, the only combat Ebdane would be called upon to engage in as Secretary of Defense would be with paper work, with Congress during budget hearings, and with suspicious opposition politicians (if there are still any left).

In other words, administration is what running a department is all about, not combat. It’s a fundamental fact Ebdane should have learned by now, given the time he spent at the PNP and his current post at the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Neither Cruz nor the Feliciano Commission (the latter looked into the causes of the 2003 Oakwood mutiny) said so, but the capacity to think things out thoroughly is what running a government agency demands. A department secretary doesn’t have to be, and should not be, so quick on the draw as to ignore all other options. Instead he or she has to know what he’s aiming at first, why he’s aiming at it, and what he’s going to aim with.

Whatever their flaws, the country’s latest civilian defense secretaries have at least been reasonably contemplative. Orlando Mercado, for instance, looked at defense as integral to the country’s development agenda, and tried, within the limits of the Estrada administration, to craft the policies appropriate to that strategic aim. Avelino Cruz didn’t spend his time saying the first thing that came to his mind, but was in the middle of reforming the entire defense system and drafting a Security Act when he resigned.

If he thought it out long enough before he said it, Ebdane’s statement suggests that he would be less reflective–in a post that involves a broad range of policy options, and is supposed to lead in the modernization of an armed forces of divided allegiances.

The Feliciano Commission did address that last issue, its mandate being at the heart of the country’s continuing problems with military restiveness. It was to minimize the divisions in the military that the Commission recommended that a civilian head Defense.

The source of the divisions in the military has primarily been political, although the specifics have changed since the overthrow of the Marcos government in 1986. It was divided between Marcos and Corazon Aquino then. Today the military is primarily divided between Arroyo loyalists and those who doubt her legitimacy.

An Ebdane appointment will almost certainly sharpen those divisions. An Arroyo loyalist through and through, Ebdane has also been linked to the Hello Garci controversy that’s at the heart of junior officer disillusionment over the Arroyo regime.

This alone should make the very idea of an Ebdane appointment to Defense unthinkable to Malacanang–but only if it’s concerned with that issue at all.

It may not be, and instead wants to make sure that in May 2007 as in May 2004, there will be as many generals seeing to it that the elections go the way they should. If that is indeed the case, only someone who’s quick on the draw and absolutely loyal to Malacanang will do in Defense.

(Business Mirror)

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