“Please don’t confuse your enemies with your friends.”
Francis Ricciardone, Manila, July 15, 2004
Filipinos can only agree with US Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone. You must know who your friends and enemies are. What’s equally important, you must also know who’re merely pretending to be your friends, but who’re likely to screw you at the first opportunity.
The good news this month is that the Arroyo government may be in the middle of finding out—or of being reminded.
It now seems likely that the news blackout imposed by the Arroyo government in the Angelo de la Cruz hostage crisis, and the vague statements it issued through the Department of Foreign Affairs, were not meant—at least not primarily—to confuse or mislead the Iraqi group holding de la Cruz. They were meant to prevent further US pressure on the Philippine government, as back channel negotiations continued for the release of de la Cruz.
This could be the beginning of wisdom. No, the “news blackout” did not compel the Philippine media to censor themselves. Instead it required Philippine government officials, on pain of dismissal, to keep their silence, and the Department of Foreign Affairs to issue the only statements relevant to the crisis.
No one need cry “suppression of press freedom” in this instance, and no journalists’ organization seems inclined to do so. News sources—and the government is one such source—do have the right to choose what information to make available to the media and when.
The July 9 announcement by Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzalez that de la Cruz was about to be released had turned out to be false. It created predictable havoc on the credibility of the government, and endangered negotiations with the Khaled ibn Al-Walid Corps that was still holding de la Cruz. By imposing a blackout on its own officials the Arroyo government apparently realized that the blame lay on the pronounced tendency among the former, including Gonzalez, to act the know-it-all by tattling to the media.
Limiting the release of information to the Department of Foreign Affairs did have its downside, however. In their fear of saying anything damaging either to the negotiations or themselves, DFA officials ended up saying virtually nothing. When anyone says nothing but gobbledygook during a crisis, everyone ends up speculating. Speculation can lead to rumors, and rumors can assume destructive lives of their own.
Thankfully, before speculation due to lack of information could escalate into rumor, the DFA finally did say something meaningful. It announced unequivocally over the weekend that the remaining 43 out of the 51-person Philippine contingent would leave Iraq July 19th, a day ahead of the deadline the Khaled ibn Al-Walid Corps had set earlier.
The partly unseen, though not unheard, presence in all of this was the United States. Although Ricciardone told the Philippine media that the United States, as “an ally, a friend,” was “here for you,” and was trying to help the Philippines “be strong,” “being strong” the way the US wanted it to be—allow de la Cruz’ captors to behead him—was not the Philippine government’s preferred course of action.
Mrs. Arroyo had no choice. Heeding her US patrons’ demand that her government “be strong” would have meant de la Cruz’ beheading, and thus the risk of a whirlwind of protest that could lead to the destabilization she has feared since weeks before her inauguration last June 30.
Among other measures, Mrs. Arroyo has been trying for weeks to pacify the Poe wing of the opposition as well as Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus Is Lord Movement, both of which had been loudly claiming fraud in the May 10 elections. Considering the 90 percent support for withdrawing the Philippine troops from Iraq among the population, the crisis that would result from the beheading of de la Cruz could provoke a quick end to her term via, among other possibilities, another EDSA revolt.
Her own immediate interests and those of her government thus demanded that she withdraw the Philippine contingent from Iraq. In one of those instances rare in Philippine governance, those interests meshed with national interest, which in the Middle East has always been the protection of the millions of overseas workers the Philippines has in the region.
The United States undoubtedly knows this, whatever the US Congress’ 9/11 Panel says about “flawed US intelligence”. (Access to Iraqi oil resources, and establishing a significant military presence in the Middle East—not “flawed intelligence”—led Bush and company to attack and occupy Iraq.)
But in one more demonstration of the enduring validity of that dictum about the impermanence—and illusion– of friendships in international relations, the US nevertheless tried everything to force Mrs. Arroyo to act against her own interests by making two US cabinet secretaries (State and Defense) issue the usual warnings about “giving in to terrorists,” and then by making the usual threats about “reviewing US-Philippine relations.” Along the way, the US media, including its most ignorant component, US television, weighed in by attacking the Arroyo decision to withdraw Philippine troops.
The news from Washington has been as expected. The Associated Press has quoted “US officials” as saying that the United States and its “other allies”—presumably Britain, Australia, and Poland, among others—were reexamining relations with the Philippines.
The “reexamination” will almost certainly lead to cuts in US economic and military aid to the Philippines, unless the Arroyo government promises the US other goodies in exchange for the withdrawal of Philippine troops. (There’s nothing to prevent the Arroyo government—except shame and the peril it will expose other Filipino workers to—from sending another contingent to Iraq, for example; or from allowing US troops to engage “terrorists” in Mindanao and even the rest of the country, except the Constitution.)
Although US aid cuts have been loudly lamented by US apologists in the Philippine media, they would affect ordinary Filipinos only if they meant anything to their daily lives. As it is, much of foreign aid is lost to the fabled corruption in the civilian and military bureaucracies, anyway.
Even before the hostage crisis, meanwhile the US had already withheld its promised aid of $30 million for Mindanao because of the failure of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to forge a peace agreement.
But the United States can hurt the Philippines most by barring the hiring of Filipino workers in the US military and the US firms now profiting from the reconstruction of Iraq that followed the US forces’ destruction of it. There are an estimated 4,000 Filipinos working in Iraq, most of them in US bases. Despite the de la Cruz hostage crisis, thousands more are leaving for jobs as service workers in the US military and in the US and British firms there. That could foment unrest in the Philippines, and worse, reduce already declining OFW remittances.
A US “review” of its relations with the Philippines could thus mean not only the withdrawal or withholding of US economic and military aid, but also a ban on the employment of Filipino workers in US-controlled Iraq. In keeping with Ricciardone’s sage advice, the next few weeks could thus show us who the Philippines’ friends and enemies really are.
Given the possibility that the country’s dearest of friends may turn out to be not so friendly after all, it wouldn’t hurt for the Arroyo government to prepare for the worst forms US retaliation could take. Among other measures, Mrs. Arroyo could speed up the realization of her promise to provide the jobs Filipinos leaving for Iraq don’t have. Could she at least have a few hundred out of the ten million she promised available by, say, next month?
Mrs. Arroyo could also undertake a review of Philippine-US relations—and of the policies that led her government to act against the country’s interests in the first place. Given the unprecedented support the Arroyo II government is getting in the wake of its decision to withdraw Philippine troops from Iraq, there is no better time than the present, when practically the entire country’s behind her.