Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is finally getting what she’s been hankering for since January this year — a meeting with US President Barack Obama, an event preceded by, among others, visits by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta.

The CIA’s Panetta thought it funny that some Filipinos should think that he was visiting the Philippines last week to influence next year’s elections — or that he was at least making sure there will be one.

The idea may seem funny now, but it wouldn’t have seemed so during the presidency of George W. Bush. What’s not amusing is how some Filipinos, especially the Arroyo government, still don’t get it, seven months into a new US administration: Barack Obama is no Bush, and the dissimilarity goes beyond the former’s being black, knowledgeable and eloquent, rather than white, ignorant and incoherent.

No, the difference doesn’t consist of any departure from the bottom-line US foreign policy goal of promoting and advancing US strategic and economic interests. The difference is one of strategy that’s in turn based on a difference in world view.

Bush represented, often unbeknownst even to himself, a fundamentalist, ideological view of the world and the US’ role in it. In contrast is the pragmatism evident in Obama’s acts and statements as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In the Bush world view, US interests demanded the use of all means including regime change via military intervention and war, and arbitrary detention and torture of “enemy combatants” if “necessary.” The strategy required refashioning in the US image regimes that, having been weighed in the US scale and found wanting, were targeted for change, such as that of Saddam Hussein’s.

This policy assumed that the US was an island of perfection in a sea of flawed and failed states. In addition to assuring its economic interests — and incidentally those of its own officials — US policy during the Bush watch echoed the messianic complex of the fundamentalist Christian churches, with their emphasis on “crusades” in behalf of “Christian values” to disguise the drive for political and economic dominance that the world knows as imperialism. That policy presumed that the US knew best what was good for other countries and peoples. And what was good for them was the US model — i.e., unaccountable capitalism palatably labeled “democracy”.

The Bush doctrine of pre-emption and military intervention in behalf of US oil and other interests was the same policy of intervention in a new garb. It was the same doctrine championed by the Republican Party of keeping the world safe for Chevron and General Motors through the manipulation, subversion and undermining of unfriendly regimes and installing in their place malleable right- wing dictatorships no matter how brutal.

Early on during his first term Bush expressed his view of the world in terms of “us” and “the other”: you’re either for us or against us, and to defeat all those who belonged to the latter category everything, including overthrowing sovereign states, as had been sanctioned by a century of US intervention, was allowed.

Obama waged his campaign for the US presidency on, among others, a deviation from this path, proclaiming that US interests could be secured and enhanced without sacrificing “American values,” which he equated with, among others, respect for human rights and the primacy of elections as democratic exercises.

Although it didn’t go beyond lip service, what was significant about the US position on the recent coup in Honduras was that it affirmed the legitimacy of Manuel Zelaya as the duly elected president of that country.

Because Zelaya is among the reformers, liberals and leftists in power in Latin America (among them Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua), at another time the military coup against him would have been hailed by the US government. US right wing media and the Republican Party scoundrels who support dictatorships in fact wasted no time in excoriating Obama for his statement, declaring (while ignoring the fact that Zelaya was legitimately elected in free elections in 2005), that it put the US in the same company as the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, which condemned the Honduras coup.

The difference between what would have been the Bush position and Obama’s is a difference of strategy rather than purpose. The Obama policy is not, at the moment, focused on remaking the world in the US image, but in achieving the same results via the less costly paths of dialogue and diplomacy.

Panetta may have found it funny that some Filipinos should have thought that he was visiting to influence next year’s elections. It’s not the results of those elections that are the Obama administration’s concern as much as their credibility, given US interest in retaining and enlarging its presence in Mindanao as part of its “return to Asia” policy.

No one except herself and those closest to her knows what bill of goods Arroyo will be selling to Obama on July 30. But what’s certain is that she will be bringing with her the same client-to-patron assumption that she needs US support, and that the best way to obtain this is to appeal to US self-interest.

If Arroyo has done her homework she should know that the way to Obama’s heart is through appeals to the values, allegedly shared between the Philippines and the US, of human rights and democratic governance.

Unfortunately for her, leaving Malacanang quietly at the end of her term is among the imperatives of the latter, and Obama isn’t likely to say or do anything that will imply support for her remaining in power beyond 2010. What he could do would amount to the exact opposite: suggest the need for holding the elections and the imperative to make them credible.

For all her anxiety to meet with Obama since early this year, the event may not be as personally gratifying as she hopes. But of one thing she can be assured: it’s unlikely that, for all the US lip service to human rights, Obama won’t raise that issue to Arroyo, in much the same way that Clinton has steered clear of it when dealing with China. It’s all part of the pragmatic approach the Obama administration has put in place and is developing.


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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