The year that was (2)


The United States has always loomed large in Philippine affairs, despite the supposed end of colonial relations more than 50 years ago.

The country is not much different from many others whose citizens see the United States as a success story they would like to replicate (by aping the capitalist path to development), or to be part of (by immigrating to it). But Filipinos and their leaders are in many ways unique in their often fanatical pro-Americanism.

For the educated classes, especially academics raised on US books and steeped in the latest trends in US academia, the United States is intellectual homeland. Some of the most radical Filipino intellectuals reside in the United States, for example, and among Manila’s university progressives, familiarity with current US scholarship is regarded as a sure sign of wisdom. For many ordinary folk, the United States is the earthly equivalent of heaven, and the one country they would like to immigrate to.

For the Philippine political class—whose power and survival have been tied to US “free trade” and counter-revolutionary policies for decades—the political and other benefits of identification with US interests have been two-fold. It has meant millions of US military and economic aid, some of which could be and has been funneled into private bank accounts. It has also meant both material and non-material support during elections—or, as in the case of Ferdinand Marcos whose dictatorial rule was supported by four US administrations—during one’s incumbency.

For Philippine presidents the mere expression of it has sometimes been enough, the pledges of material aid being icing on the cake. To a citizenry that’s solidly pro-US—which in late 1980s, for example, so ardently supported the continuance of US basing rights in Olongapo they assaulted those opposed to it—US support for any candidate makes that candidate worthy of office. For any candidate specially an incumbent, US support is money in the bank, sometimes literally.

In 2003 the US attack on Iraq—the first step in the effort of the Bush government to remake the world—coincided with the fact that it was the eve of the 2004 presidential elections.

Although President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had pledged on December 30, 2002 that she would not run in 2004, events have since shown that she nevertheless intended to do so.

For this purpose she had been preparing since 2001 through a series of domestic and foreign policy initiatives. The domestic policies ranged from attempts to make peace with the Estrada camp to cultivating military support by scuttling peace talks with the National Democratic Front as well as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and to adopting Catholic Church policies on family planning.

In foreign policy, the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 provided the new government its first opportunity to further strengthen relations with the US. Although those relations had suffered with the removal of the US military bases in the 1990s, they had never really waned, the Visiting Forces Agreement having been approved by the Senate, through the efforts of, among others, then senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The WTC attack, however, gave Arroyo the chance to unconditionally express support for whatever initiatives the US intended to pursue to punish those responsible.

The US initiatives included its November 2001 bombing of Afghanistan. By mid-2002, however, it became increasingly clear that the United States would attack Iraq as well. Perhaps coincidentally, Arroyo appointed then opposition Senator Blas Ople—who by that time had reinvented himself from nationalist to a firm base of US support in the Philippine Senate—Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

Throughout the second half of 2002 the Arroyo government, mainly through the ex-nationalist Ople, consistently and loudly echoed the US line on Iraq, despite the possibility that an attack on that country could put the millions of Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East in harm’s way, and what’s more imperil their jobs. At the same time, in a process that began in 2001, US troops continued to pour into the country for “joint exercises” which at one point were bluntly described as campaigns against the Abu Sayyaf bandit group.

The planned US attack on Iraq was certainly contrary to Philippine national interests. By the beginning of 2003, however, it had become clearer than ever that the Philippine government was committed to supporting such an attack.

As if to prove Iraqi links with Al Qaeda, the Philippines declared an Iraqi diplomat persona non grata on the basis of raw intelligence reports. Mrs. Arroyo also echoed the Bush line on the United Nations by chastising it for its failure to provide the international mandate to figleaf US aggression. But before other countries had done so, the Philippines became a member of the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” that gave the US invasion a semblance of international support.

Upon the US occupation of Iraq the Arroyo government emphasized the jobs that Iraqi reconstruction would supposedly make available to OFWs. It also dispatched post-haste a team of policemen and doctors to Iraq in furtherance of the myth that what was happening in Iraq was not a US occupation, but an international effort to create a democratic and modern society.

In 2003 Mrs. Arroyo also visited the United States and was given a royal welcome that in the Philippines was universally regarded as proof of the special place she —and her re-election—had in the heart of George W. Bush.

Almost immediately, Bush reciprocated with an eight-hour visit to the Philippines. As if the visit itself were not enough, in his address to a joint session of the Philippine Congress Bush reiterated his preference for Mrs. Arroyo’s remaining in power beyond 2004.

Naturally. Mrs. Arroyo’s rivals are unknown qualities, and some of them are unpredictable enough to jeopardize the military and political relations that, as the think tank Strategic Forecasting had predicted in November 2000 would happen, Mrs. Arroyo’s initiatives have considerably enhanced.

These events must be seen in the context of Mrs. Arroyo’s drive for election in 2004. Among all the candidates she has been the most aggressive in playing the US card. That card has become a major source of her political strength, as the country deteriorates as a consequence of her domestic policies.

On the other hand, her rival candidates have studiously stayed clear of every issue that involves US-Philippine relations. With the possible exception of the clueless Fernando Poe Jr., all of them realize how their taking issue with Mrs. Arroyo’s determined effort to restore Philippine-US relations to their 1960s state could be unpopular among the electorate as well as with the US embassy and government. The stubborn Senator Panfilo Lacson, for example—who has taken issue with everything else the Arroyo administration has ever said or done—has kept his peace on the vast range of questions that now confront the country as a result of the Arroyo government’s military and political re-engagement with the United States.

Mrs. Arroyo has several times confessed to making political mistakes. The results of the 2004 elections should help tell whether her decision to ally herself with the US unequivocally and without reservation was not one of them,

(Today/, December 30, 2003)

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