The Arroyo government has spent millions refurbishing Malacanang and the former Clark Airbase. In an act reminiscent of the Marcos regime, it has even relocated squatter colonies from those parts of metro Manila US President George W. Bush and party are likely to see this Saturday, October 18, when he comes to visit. It is also fielding tens of thousands of policemen and military agents in metro Manila to secure Bush, and preparing to entertain his party with “barrio fiestas–whose lavishness the country’s millions of peasants who have been on semi-starvation diets for centuries cannot even imagine.

As costly as these are, the human rights costs of the Bush visit are likely to be considerable, although he will be in the Philippines for only eight hours.

The police and the military are talking darkly of “disruptions,” and “terrorist attacks” and looking in the direction of protest groups. Police spokesmen have announced a “no permit, no rally” policy as if they had a legal right to decide who may or may not exercise the right to free assembly. The same spokesmen have since made it clear that the police will not be issuing permits in the first place. No one may demonstrate without being violently dispersed with water cannon, truncheons, and–those new additions to the police’s arsenal of repression–rubber bullets.

A week or so ago, to justify police and military plans to put up road blocks and checkpoints, search individuals and vehicles for weapons even without reasonable cause, and generally subject everyone to the martial law measures with which he is only too familiar, foreign affairs secretary Blas Ople claimed that an assassination plot on Bush by the New People’s Army was afoot.

Human rights are extremely fragile, and once violated are difficult to restore.
Apparently, however, the Arroyo government thinks these costs to be justified, as it believes the costs in national sovereignty of the country’s total support for the Bush government’s foreign policy to be justified.

There are the anticipated millions of dollars in economic and military aid to start with. Although still mostly pledges, the aid, though supposedly meant to boost livelihood opportunities and help modernize the Armed Forces, is being eagerly anticipated by the upper levels of the corrupt civilian and military bureaucracy. Indeed there will be money to be made once the millions of dollars and the military equipment promised the AFP come in. Part of the aid could also be very easily channeled to the campaign for the 2004 election.

The 2004 exercise in futility is in fact the most compelling–perhaps the only–reason why Mrs. Arroyo has chosen to align herself with the Bush administration. More than the economic and military aid, the support of Bush–already implicit in his decision to visit the Philippines, but which he could emphasize even more with a few well-chosen words–justifies the visit’s costs in scarce resources, sovereignty and human rights.

Mrs. Arroyo needs all the help she can get. Her political party Lakas and the People Power Coalition have been crippled by defections, and are on the verge of hemorrhaging members in the House, where a sizeable bloc favors the candidacy of Eduardo Cojuangco. She has remained in third or fourth place in the polls, a sign that she has no firm support, even as her approval ratings continue to crumble.

All this can change with the Bush visit. Given an uninformed and incurably pro-US electorate, it will be a political coup to no one else’s advantage but Mrs. Arroyo’s, whose approval ratings are likely to see a boost in the aftermath.

On the other hand, Bush is not coming only to hold Mrs. Arroyo’s hand. Although he’s attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation annual summit in Bangkok, Bush’s Asian journey is also meant to shows the folks at home that his foreign policy is working, and that despite Iraq, the US can still count on its allies in Asia, particularly Australia, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.

The leaders of every single one of these countries have problems a Bush visit could help soften if not solve. Australia’s Prime Minister Howard has been censured by Parliament for leading that country into war in Iraq. Japan’s is facing widespread opposition to the deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq in response to Bush’s call for international help in the occupation of that country. Thailand’s Thaksin is himself having a difficult time justifying his government’s support for Bush’s policy.

As in the case of the Philippines, each of these countries will be returning the favor in an area where the most recent US polls show Americans to be at least as doubtful about Bush’s capacity as in managing the US economy: in running US foreign policy.

Early this month, a New York Times/CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) survey showed that 56 percent of all Americans believed the US to be “on the wrong track” in its foreign relations, while 53 percent doubted whether the war on Iraq was worth the costs in money and American lives.

A majority of Americans also disapproved of Bush’s handling of the economy, as well they should, since his administration has cost them 2.8 million jobs since 2001.

Bush’s overall ratings had also slid from the sky-high 80 percent he enjoyed shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York to about 50 percent.

Observers of the US political scene now say that Bush could end up a one-term president like his father, George H. W. Bush, by being defeated in the US presidential elections in November, 2004. It’s still just a possibility, but a possibility nevertheless, in stark contrast to a year ago when it was conceded even by the Democratic Party that he was likely to win reelection.

The bad news for Bush is that the above figures were generated before the growing scandal over one of his closest advisers–compromising the safety of a CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operative by leaking her name to the media. As that scandal escalates and drags some of his closest associates into it, Bush’s ratings could plunge even further.

The scandal involves the supposed leak to the media of the CIA links of Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Bush policy on Iraq.

Wilson was sent to Niger in February 2002 to look into allegations that Iraq was buying uranium in Africa. He concluded that the story was false and passed the information on to the CIA. But a year later, Bush used the same allegation to support an attack on Iraq. Wilson went public last July. A week later at least two White House sources leaked to the media the information that Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame was a CIA operative.

Compromising a US spy’s identity is a crime in the US punishable with ten years’ imprisonment, and it looks as if Bush’s special political adviser Karl Rove did it out of no other motive than to spite Wilson. It was also done at the expense of US security, Plame being an expert on weapons of mass destruction.

A show of support for the US among such key Asian allies as Australia and Japan will of course help dispel some of Bush’s troubles, though not the Plame scandal. His Philippine visit can also help by painting him as a president with the support of the government of a country that, before the US attack on Iraq, US strategists had referred to as “the second front” (Afghanistan was the first) in the US war on terrorism.

On the other hand, Bush’s support could help Mrs. Arroyo boost her ratings enough for her to prevail, though perhaps only by the skin of her teeth, in May 2004. But she may end up having bet on the wrong horse should Bush lose the US elections in November. A Bush defeat is at least a possibility, and if it happens, will mean that while Bush bet on a sure thing (Mrs. Arroyo), Mrs. Arroyo didn’t.

Assuming Bush is defeated in 2004 and Mrs. Arroyo wins a six-year term, in at least four of those years she will have to deal with a Democratic president in the White House who’s not likely to be in the same mould as Bush. But that may not matter as much to Mrs. Arroyo as the calculation that Bush’s support, specially his visit, will pay off in May 2004, despite its costs to this country’s sovereignty and its citizens’ rights.


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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