The’re playing down the political fallout from the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz last week. But Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s allies in the House are also echoing their Malacanang counterparts’ declarations that finding a replacement for Cruz is still her call.

Except that House Deputy Majority Leader Abraham Mitra has done them better. Mitra said over the weekend that Mrs. Arroyo, who will temporarily hold the defense portfolio, should assume the post permanently.

“She should pick the best man (sic) for the job–herself,” rather than name a retired general or another politician to the post, said Mitra.

Mitra argued that: (1) Mrs. Arroyo’s assuming the defense post will prevent her allies from fighting among themselves for it; (2) her being defense secretary will accelerate the modernization of the armed forces; and (3) Mrs. Arroyo would have a firm mandate since she is “an elected official voted (for) by millions.” He didn’t mention that Mrs. Arroyo is probably toying with that possibility herself, while he won’t lose anything by suggesting it.

One can agree with Mitra’s first point, his next two being too problematic (Would Mrs. Arroyo’s being defense chief stop the corruption that’s been the number one nemesis of AFP modernization? And was Mrs. Arroyo indeed elected by the Filipino millions? ).

Three of Mitra’s colleagues in the House, of course all of them allies of Mrs. Arroyo, are in contention for the job, even as a host of ex-generals, each backed by his own patron in the active service, are also eyeing the post.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon has made it clear that he wouldn’t mind—that he would prefer– having a retired general for DND chief. He’s probably not thinking of Generoso Senga, his predecessor. Senga’s loyalty to Mrs. Arroyo was after all in doubt during much of this year.

So Esperon probably has someone in mind for the job who’s more along the lines of former General Jovito Palparan. Despite the enthusiasm he showed for his work during the last three years, that great humanitarian has had to make do with a minor sinecure in the Department of Justice since his retirement.

Speculation over both Cruz’ resignation as well as his replacement has focused on Cruz’ possible disagreement with the directions and methods of the anti-insurgency campaign, with some commentators suggesting that Cruz may have had a run in with the “hardliners” in the Arroyo government. Mrs. Arroyo’s choice of a replacement, this argument holds, should indicate whether the hardliners have prevailed.

Some mistake the term hardliner to refer to a military man, its companion assumption being that a civilian would be, for lack of a better term, a “softy” in comparison. But the term has nothing to do with being a civilian or military person. In the current Philippine context, it refers to one’s political stance, particularly on the matter of dealing with the Left and the New People’s Army insurgency. Whether of purely civilian, partly military or purely military background, anyone can be either a hardliner or whatever its opposite may be.

Nevertheless, whether the secretary of defense should be from civilian ranks or someone with a military background does involve policy issues. A civilian, even if a hardliner, would have at least the virtue of non-involvement in the factional disputes in the armed forces, among others. But the downside is that he or she would not necessarily be as loyal to Mrs. Arroyo as a military man like Palparan or Esperon would be.

Whether it is still possible to have someone at Defense who’s not a hardliner is uncertain at least. Speculation about Cruz’ departure has tended to imply that he was no hardliner because he supposedly opposed the declaration of martial law earlier this year. This has in turn provoked conjectures that he also opposed the political assassinations that are now part of the Arroyo regime’s anti-insurgency campaign.

There is no indication that he did either, and the fact remains that it was during his watch when the killing of political activists accelerated. Cruz is also associated with National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, the regime’s resident ultra-Rightist, whose Partido Demokratiko-Sosyalista ng Pilipinas is currently programming the military so it can better serve the Arroyo regime.

What is certain is that, judging from the political killings alone, the regime is now so far to the Right of the political spectrum it can no longer backtrack to a point resembling reason. That means that whoever Mrs. Arroyo puts in defense will be the inevitable hardliner in the mold of Gonzales and Palparan.

As suggested by Congressman Mira, Mrs. Arroyo could of course still decide to hold the defense portfolio herself. That would be convenient and advantageous for the inner-circle members of the regime cabal especially herself, since it would make her more visible to the military whose bayonets keep her in power, although it may not make her better liked.

But she could also decide to put the post in equally dependable hands. If the Cruz experience has taught her anything, it would be that civilians, no matter how Rightist, do have other interests beyond the tactically political. Some manage to keep their legal compunctions, especially if they’re also lawyers and/or technocrats like Cruz, for example. That makes them ultimately unreliable as political operators. Mrs. Arroyo is thus more likely this time to appoint someone of purely military background to Defense, if at all she learned anything from the Avelino Cruz episode-

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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