As of this writing, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is getting praises from practically the entire range of the political spectrum, except the Poe wing of the opposition.

Church dignitaries, for example, have praised her for her sensitivity to “the legitimate needs and wants of her people,” for putting the life of truck driver Angelo de la Cruz first, and for simply doing what is right. Even some groups that call themselves “leftist and progressive” have declared their delight over Mrs. Arroyo’s seeming reversal of her aggressively pro-U.S. Iraq policy.

Mrs. Arroyo’s own allies have also spoken up in praise of her decision to supposedly pull out the 51-person “humanitarian” Philippine mission from Iraq.

But what was most noticeable in their praise was that, as one after another the senators of the Republic expressed their support for Mrs. Arroyo’s alleged decision, they all mentioned “national interest” as its justification.

“National interest” had been exactly Mrs. Arroyo’s own justification for her unconditional support for the United States’ “war on terror” — and later, its metamorphosis into a war on Iraq, which consequently led to the Philippines’ dispatching the troops there in the first place.

No one need spend sleepless nights pondering over the mystery of how “national interest” can be served by contradictory acts. “National interest” was only a convenient excuse for the Arroyo policy on Iraq and the country’s military reengagement with the United States. Like “liberty”, and that other buzzword which falls regularly from the mouths of the would-be Masters of the World, “democracy”, “national interest” too can be the excuse for great crimes.

But like liberty and democracy, national interest too does have a meaning the most perverse can’t distort. Evident in the statements of support for the announcement by the Arroyo administration that it was pulling out the Philippine troops was the universal conviction even among Mrs. Arroyo’s own allies that the withdrawal was in the national interest, and that her involving the country in the United States’ illegal and immoral war in Iraq in the first place was contrary to that interest.

This was so obvious only self-interest could have masked it — as indeed it did. For the sake of U.S. support for her remaining in office, in 2003 Mrs. Arroyo not only joined the U.S. in attacking the United Nations, she also echoed fraudulent U.S. claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and its supposed links with al-Qaeda to justify attacking Iraq.

Mrs. Arroyo then dragged the country into the Iraq quagmire on the specious justification that Philippine workers would profit from the jobs that would be available from the U.S. corporations amassing huge profits from contracts to rebuild the country U.S. forces had destroyed. In doing so she ignored warnings that while jobs would indeed be available, Philippine identification with the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” would also imperil the country’s over one million workers in the Middle East.

Judging from the near-unanimous demand for the withdrawal of the Philippine contingent from Iraq, and the broad support for the Arroyo administration’s alleged decision to do so, no one — not the Church, not business, not the civil society groups, not ordinary Filipinos and certainly not the sectoral and other organizations that launched the first protests against her Iraq policy early last week — ever actually believed her then.

The question is whether anyone should believe her now — whether the Philippine contingent will indeed be withdrawn as her subalterns in the Department of Foreign Affairs seem to have announced, or whether, to continue pleasing the United States, Mrs. Arroyo and company are only being deliberately deceptive in their statements in the hope that de la Cruz would be released without the contingent’s pulling out.

An Agence France-Presse release puts it succinctly:

“The Philippine government,” the agency quotes diplomats in Manila, “is playing a dangerous game in its attempt to free a Filipino hostage in Iraq by using language deliberately couched in ambiguity.

“They [diplomatic sources] say government announcements… have been vague and misleading and may have done more harm than good…” the AFP report continued.

Indeed no official source has said without equivocation that the Philippines will withdraw all its troops and when. Instead, these sources, primarily Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert and her deputy, Rafael Seguis, have been evasive in the wording of the statements they have issued.

Again as Agence France- Presse’s diplomatic sources pointed out, Albert, for example, said in a press statement that the number of Philippine troops was “down from 51 to 43,” which added two to the six that the Department of National Defense had told the press were not in Iraq anyway, five being on leave, and one being attached to a camp in Kuwait.

Agence France-Presse pointed out that Seguis’s statement was equally equivocal:

“In response to the demand by the group Khaled ibn al-Walid, the Philippine government, in line with its commitments, will pull its humanitarian forces out of Iraq as soon as possible in the time it takes to carry out the necessary preparation for their return to the Philippines.”

The statement raises more questions than it answers. What does “in line with its commitments” mean? Commitments to whom? To de la Cruz’s abductors or to the United States? What of “as soon as possible in the time it takes to carry out necessary preparations…”? Does this mean before the deadline set by the Khaled ibnal-Walid group, which has been moved from July 20 to July 30, or by August 20 as originally planned?

One diplomat’s conclusion that the statements were not really saying anything thus seems justified:

“No one knows where [the Philippine government] stands. Seguis’s statement appears to be saying they are pulling the contingent out, but at the same time [says that it would be] ‘in line with its commitments’. . . It’s anybody’s guess right now.”

Mrs. Arroyo may thus be reaping praises only for deliberately vague statements that have been wishfully misinterpreted. As Agence France-Presse’s diplomatic sources pointed out, her government could be playing a dangerous game by giving the impression that it’s pulling out the contingent, while it remains faithful to its “commitments” to the United States.

Why the subterfuge, if subterfuge it indeed is? The universal consensus among Filipinos that the troops must be withdrawn for the sake of national interest has led to the possible realization of Mrs. Arroyo’s worst nightmare: unrest sufficiently widespread to destabilize her government should de la Cruz be killed as a consequence of her Iraq policy.

This fear is based on the sense that there’s also enough antipathy out there for Mrs. Arroyo’s government because of, among other reasons, perceptions that the May 10 elections were fraud-ridden. The fear of losing her uneasy seat explains the martial law-levels of the police response to the street protests against the Arroyo Iraq policy that broke out early last week. In those demonstrations, police brutality was unquestionably meant to prevent the protests from escalating enough to threaten Mrs. Arroyo’s government.

Despite that fear, however, Mrs. Arroyo did commit the Philippines to supporting, come what may, the U.S. adventure in Iraq, with all the consequences incidental to it. As a “major non-Nato ally,” the show of Philippine support is apparently regarded as crucial by the United States in keeping alive the myth that it has international support. To demonstrate its concern, the U.S. thus lined up not only its ambassador in Manila in the chorus of U.S. protest against the withdrawal of Philippine troops, but even called on its Secretary of State (Colin Powell) and Secretary of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) to head it off.

Mrs. Arroyo is thus in a bind, caught in a trap of her own making. Between the overwhelming demand for the withdrawal of Philippine troops on the one hand, and U.S. pressure for her to keep them in Iraq on the other, is the ever-faithful U.S. client Mrs. Arroyo, playing a high-stakes game which could lead to precisely the kind of unrest that she fears?


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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