The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Santiago, Chile has become the venue for the realization of the Arroyo administration’s fondest wish in foreign relations since July this year. US President George Bush engaged President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in what seemed to be a friendly conversation during an APEC dinner over the weekend.

We can expect the latter’s government to milk that event for all it’s worth, but not only for the consumption of those Filipinos who think the world of the US, and that the world is the US. Crucial to the political survival of the Arroyo government–or so it believes– is the appeasement of the super hawks inside the Bush administration, as well as those of its advisers who looked at Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to withdraw the Philippine contingent from Iraq last July as a betrayal of US interests and as probable cause for the withdrawal of US support.

Since she made that decision to prevent the eruption of large-scale demonstrations that could have led to her ouster, thanks to an election most Filipinos think she stole– and incidentally to save the life of truck driver Angelo de la Cruz–Mrs. Arroyo has been described as the weakest leader in Asia as far as “standing up to terrorism” is concerned, and has been at the receiving end of the broadest hints of US retaliation, among them the denial of US aid.

Now the most dangerous man in the world–fresh from an electoral triumph he’s eager to turn into a mandate for both his domestic and foreign policies–not only acknowledged Mrs. Arroyo’s presence. He actually engaged her in, if we’re to believe Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, a conversation on topics that ranged from the future of US-Philippines relations to the fiscal problems of both countries.

While Bush may have only been both unwontedly diplomatic and courteous–through some protocular fluke Mrs. Arroyo had ended up seated beside him and he had to make conversation, didn’t he?–the Arroyo administration probably hopes that that less than momentous event would convince the extremists in the Bush administration and in the Heritage Foundation that Bush himself has not written off Mrs. Arroyo as an ally. The administration is now free to believe that the US government’s undisguised fury over the July pull-out has subsided, and things will be the same as they were before members of the Iraqi resistance captured and held de la Cruz.

While that may well happen in the short term, Mrs. Arroyo and company’s hopes that her administration can remain a close and uncritical US ally in the face of its obligation to protect the lives and welfare of the 1.5 million Filipino workers in the Middle East are bound for disappointment. The Arroyo administration cannot have both, because these “realities” are in contradiction with each other.

When he assumed office last August, foreign affairs secretary Alberto Romulo identified eight “realities” in the global situation as shaping Philippine foreign policy. The first is that “China, Japan and the United States have a determining influence in the security situation and economic evolution of East Asia.” In acknowledging this pantheon of major political, economic and military powers as important to the Philippines, however, Romulo singled out the United States as more equal in Philippine eyes than Japan and China.

“We must also underscore that our strategic alliance with the United States is the war against global terrorism remains vital to our national security,” said the foreign secretary, thus once more putting down in black and white the Arroyo administration’s foreign policy priority.

In the same speech, however, Romulo–and we may presume that he was speaking for Mrs. Arroyo–also mentioned the existence of Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East among the “realities” Philippine foreign policy had to contend with.

But as the Angelo de la Cruz episode demonstrated, the so-called “strategic alliance” with the United States in “the war against global terrorism” is at odds with the immense Philippine government responsibility of protecting “the rights, and the promotion of the welfare and interests” of OFWs.

The last phrase is from a speech by Romulo’s predecessor Delia Albert, who told foreign correspondents at the Manila Overseas Press Club shortly before her replacement by Romulo last August that Philippine foreign policy had three pillars. The first is the promotion and enhancement of national security, the second the promotion and attainment of economic security, and the third the protection of OFWs, of whom some 1.5 million are in the Middle East.

The Middle East has been a favored destination for OFWs since the Marcos period, which first made it a policy to export locally unemployable Filipino labor abroad. Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, the Middle East has become the focus of the US policy of regime change and preemptive war, thus making it the most dangerous region in the planet.

The situation US policy has created in Iraq has led to the endangerment of, among others, Filipino workers. Driven by the desire to earn as much money as possible and as quickly as possible, Filipino workers have been flocking to the low-level but high- paying jobs US and other companies are offering there. Because of Philippine identification with the United States attack on and invasion and occupation of Iraq, however, Filipinos have become targets of the Iraqi resistance–or, as the United States prefers to call it (as they did Filipino armed resistance to US rule at the turn of the century), “the insurgency.”

The pull-out of the Philippine contingent did result in Angelo de la Cruz’ release, but does not by itself guarantee that other Filipinos will not be targeted. The bottom- line reason is that the Philippines did unconditionally support the attack on Iraq and its occupation by US troops, which has resulted in the destruction of that country and the death of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians including women and children. It did announce with undisguised glee that Filipinos could profit from the destruction of Iraq through employment in the projects to rebuild it.

In the aftermath of the de la Cruz incident, the Philippines did also make it clear that it regarded its “strategic alliance” with the US as an unshakeable given. Romulo’s August speech was only one of several statements from government sources to that effect. Mrs. Arroyo herself did not tire of making it clear that her government remained as steadfast as ever in its view of itself as a US ally against “terrorism”–which in Iraq has meant precisely those atrocities (for example, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the recent shooting of civilians by US troops) that continue to fuel widespread resentments across the Islamic world.

The crisis over the abductions of two other Filipinos after de la Cruz–Robert Theodore Tarongoy and Angelito Nayan, who are being held hostage in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively– is the most recent indication that Philippine foreign policy is caught in the contradiction between remaining loudly and firmly committed to US policy, and the vulnerability of its workers in the Middle East.

This is a fundamental contradiction that can only be resolved by either the Philippines’ adopting a calibrated disengagement with the US policy of using the “war on terror” as an excuse for aggression, or a policy withdrawing its OFWs from the Middle East and other countries the United States may target or has targeted, such as Afghanistan.

Bush’s reelection is certain guarantee of the continuation of the US policy of regime change through war. The US media are already trumpeting “findings” that Iran either has nuclear arms or is at the threshold of acquiring them, in virtual reprise of the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.

A US attack on Iran will once more starkly demonstrate the contradiction between the political interest of the Arroyo government–its need for US support for its very survival–and the national interest of assuring the safety of Filipino workers in the Middle East. It is on these workers that the economy depends on for survival. But these workers are also first and last Filipinos entitled to the protection of any government that dares call itself Filipino.

A “preemptive” US attack on Iran has become more than possible given the even greater dominance of the ultra rightist neo-conservative clique in the Bush administration. If that happens, expect Filipino workers there to be even more endangered than they are now and as Angelo de la Cruz was. There will be hell to pay, especially if the Philippines ends up unable to protect them because of its blind and unreasoning commitment to a “strategic alliance” with the United States. That little dalliance over dinner doesn’t mean a thing as far as the fundamental contradiction in Arroyo foreign policy is concerned.



Luis V. Teodoro

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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