Those who expected US President Barack Obama to ignore Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and who were surprised at his calling her last March 14, should have read his speeches and other statements on foreign policy during the campaign for the 2008 US Presidential elections.

Some Filipinos repelled by eight years of Bush policies had somewhat naively thought that the election of the first black US President, whose campaign had been waged from a high moral plane, would mean fundamental shifts in US foreign policy, including a departure from the “war on terrorism” paradigm. They were wrong.

Obama’s call to Arroyo emphasized the US’ continuing adherence to the “anti-terrorism” framework by lauding Arroyo’s supposed commitment to fighting terrorists, whom we can assume include both homegrown groups as well as foreign formations like the Jemaah Islamiya whose agents are said to be operating in Mindanao.

The same call linked the war on terrorism to the contentious Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which Obama declared to be “critical to the (US-Philippines) bilateral relationship and our strategic interests.” Not coincidentally was the call followed by Suzette Nicolas’ withdrawing her claim that US Marine Daniel Smith had raped her on November 1, 2005, thus defusing calls for a review and even abrogation of the Agreement.

Did the call indicate a deviation from announced Obama policies? Far from it. It was perfectly consistent with the Obama policy, or more precisely, the Obama-Biden foreign policy, which was a key element in convincing the US electorate to vote for Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden by assuaging fears over Obama’s inexperience in foreign relations and his allegedly being soft on terrorism.

The policy is anchored on three initiatives meant to address the concerns of the US electorate over safety and security: secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists and negotiate a new global ban on nuclear weapons; end the alleged threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program; and renew US diplomacy by rebuilding US alliances.

To do these, the policy emphasizes the need for diplomatic initiatives rather than the George W. Bush framework of using military power to advance US interests. In ending the Iranian “nuclear threat” (whether that threat does exist is at least debatable), Obama-Biden rejected the Bush- (Richard) Cheney plan to attack Iran by using US military facilities and troops in Iraq, and promised instead “tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions,” and to “pressure Iran directly to change its troubling behavior.”

“If Iran abandons its nuclear program and support for terrorism,” the Obama-Biden policy promised, “we will offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization, economic investments, and a move toward normal diplomatic relations. If Iran continues its troubling behavior, we will step up our economic pressure and political isolation.”

Rebuilding US alliances would require the opening of more US missions in other countries, including “in the tough and hopeless corners of the world — particularly in Africa.” But even more fundamentally would it mean consulting with and assuring US allies and abandoning the unilateralism of the Bush years.

Securing nuclear weapons from terrorists and negotiating a “verifiable ban” on nuclear weapons would address concerns not only over nuclear proliferation but also over terrorist groups’ gaining access to nuclear arms. Note that the policy has anti-terrorism as a major plank, and is a common, if understated theme, in all three initiatives.
All three initiatives are based on an overarching principle: the willingness to talk and “to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe.” The US, according to this principle, needs international support for a broad range of issues:

“Not talking doesn’t make us look tough — it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership. On challenges ranging from terrorism to disease, nuclear weapons to climate change, we cannot make progress unless we can draw on strong international support.”

The Obama policy thus affirms that
1. US foreign policy is premised on defending and advancing US interests
2. To achieve that aim the US will rebuild its alliances, and talk to everyone whether friend or foe, in some cases without conditions and with the use of muscle diplomacy.

But there’s an unstated premise in the Obama policy which Americans assume to be the bedrock on which US foreign relations are firmly based: when all else fails, US military power will defend and advance US interests. The policy does emphasize diplomatic initiatives over military power. But that’s about all it does. In another speech, Obama did imply that, as an indication of how tough he can be, he would use military means to whip recalcitrant countries into line.

Did anyone expect Obama to redirect US foreign policy from the defense and enhancement of US interests, as well as to discard the anti-terrorism framework in the conduct of US foreign relations? Those who did were the only ones surprised at Obama’s call to Arroyo. After all he did say he was willing to talk to friend or foe alike, and Arroyo has been far from being a foe of US interests, which among others include assuring US prosperity and security through its continuing “world leadership” (read: dominance in land, sea, air and space).

The anti-terrorism framework remains in place in the context of this fundamental aim. As a reaction to US dominance, terrorism is after all a real threat to both US individuals as well as interests both at home and abroad. Addressing its roots rather than continuing to fight its adherents militarily would after all require abandoning the policies that have made the world what it is: a planet of great disorder and peril as a result of the vast disparities in wealth, opportunities and power US hegemony has assured and hopes it will continue to preside over. To do so would make Obama what his rivals said he would be: a radical — which, despite all else, he isn’t, and in the context of US realities, he can’t be.


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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  1. Hi Luis,

    Remember me? The fat English guy who came to research his Ph.D. with you in 1993 and again in 1996? And you kindly gave me all those contacts out in the Visayas?

    I just stumbled across your articles in “Planet Philippines”. It’s a great discovery (for me). Now I can keep up with (some) radical analysis of the Philippine situation.

    Re: Obama’s politicies/ politics, I couldn’t agree more. It’s amazing how few commentators seem to have latched onto his real agendas .Maybe they still want to believe in “redemption through US foreign policies” if only God will send the “right guy”.

    Your analysis reflects what John Pilger here in Britain has been writing since at least last September i.e. well before Obama’s election, viz. the guy’s completely in hock to US big business in spite of all the “change” rhetoric. He didn’t acquire all those massive donations to his campaign funds without “pay back time”, even though it seems there are an awful lot of people naive enough to believe in “Obama for Change”. I wonder if he believes it himself (still)? At least he’s not as STUPID as Bush, but he’s still very much beholden to those mighty elite forces of US capitalism and the US military. But you know that already!!!!

    Anyway, please get in tough with me when you have time. I’ve been across to the Philippines a couple of times int he last two years, becauase I’m now married to a Filipina, whom I’m desperately trying to ge a “settlement” (i.e.semi-permanent) visa to visit the UK. Thanks to our racist immigration laws (strengthened bythe current so-called “New Labour” government) we’ve been so far unsuccessful, so Jay is still in Manila, but we’re still trying…

    Best wishes,


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