Rapist Daniel Smith isn’t back in US custody in exchange for a few obsolete helicopters from the United States and the resumption of the Balikatan military exercises. The Arroyo regime surrendered jurisdiction over the US Marine for the bigger cause of its political survival.
One can read that concern between the lines of the statements of Mrs. Arroyo’s subalterns. Raul Gonzalez declared, for example, that by returning Smith to US custody the Philippine government showed the US that “it complies with its international commitments and agreements,” while the Department of Foreign Affairs declared that the decision had saved US-Philippines relations. Mrs. Arroyo’s House of Representatives allies, on the other hand, chorused that she did right because the Philippines needs US military and economic aid.
Even more crucially, however, the Arroyo regime needs US support in case a serious challenge to its rule–say from mutinous elements of the military in combination with anti-Arroyo groups–ever arises. Immensely unpopular, primarily supported only by the military hierarchy, and increasingly estranged from Church groups, the regime is currently at its weakest point, and Arroyo’s generals know that the withdrawal of US support would weaken it even further.
But it’s not as unique among Philippine governments in its need for US support to make up for its legitimacy problems. It’s true that Mrs. Arroyo’s legitimacy is, uniquely among all Philippine presidents, specially challenged, and that as a result she’s needed all the help she can get to cling to power. But other Philippine presidents have also had legitimacy problems, either because of doubts over the honesty of the elections that put them in Malacanang, or, in at least one case, the certainty that only force was keeping him there.
We all know whose case that was. Ferdinand Marcos won the presidency in a landslide victory in 1965. His reelection in 1969 was accompanied by claims of fraud, terrorism and overspending. But his staying in office beyond 1973 was totally illegitimate, being the result of his seizure of power in 1972 via the declaration of martial law.
Only in the case of Marcos did legitimacy issues lead to the overthrow of a regime. For the most part Filipinos grinned and bore allegations of fraud, terrorism and vote-buying. They’ve been doing the same thing over the same issues since the elections of May 2004.
While that’s likely to continue, the Arroyo regime can’t risk its reversal a la People Power 1 and 2. Political expediency more than “national interest” thus dictated the regime’s actions in the Smith case.
What of public opinion? While some may argue that the regime usually ignores public opinion, it acted in this instance with the sense that a significant portion of the public may be supportive of Smith’s transfer to US custody, and beyond that, of even believing that no rape took place.
Whatever one may think of Gonzalez, his claim that there is no groundswell of outrage over the rape does have a basis in fact. The protests against the regime action have not exactly been attended by thousands. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that not only do many Filipinos believe that “Nicole: brought the rape upon herself; some also believe no rape took place–or that, if it did, Nicole should have enjoyed it.
The regime may not be mistaken in believing public opinion to be on its side, given the prevailing culture of self-hate and US adoration among vast numbers of Filipinos. The most successful colonial experiment in human history was after all conducted in the Philippines. Unlike other colonial powers, the United States used culture as a weapon of subjugation once it had conquered the country with the use of arms. It mandated the use of English in the educational system, thus assuring the creation of generations of Filipinos who looked to the United States as their country’s teacher, leader and superior. Even more crucially, that one policy made US popular culture accessible to all generations in a way unequalled in any other Asian country.
The other side of the adoration for things American is a self-hatred that the country’s immense failures under a profligate, corrupt, unpatriotic and totally self-serving political class has strengthened. The widespread cynicism over the incompetence and corruption of this class contrasts sharply with widespread admiration for US leaders and the US system. Nothing succeeds like success, but nothing succeeds like Philippine failure either.
On the extent of Filipino support for the US, US people and US soldiers like Smith, the Arroyo regime is thus not mistaken. Ruler and ruled are one in heeding their master’s voice, thus the regime’s confidence that, whatever violence it may have committed against Philippine law, it is secure in the support of the majority, who sees Smith’s “rescue” from the squalor of Philippine jails and custody as his and every other American’s prerogative. This country may not be paradise on earth for Filipinos, but it comes close to being one for Americans.