The Long View
An artificial construct
Is there widespread, genuine, public outrage over the foot-dragging of the administration in the face of a Supreme Court order for it to obtain custody of convicted rapist Daniel Smith? And does that outrage, if it exists, support the outright abrogation of the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement? The former, after all, is required for the latter, setting aside the intrinsic merits of the case for abrogating the VFA. After all, all politics is local.
What proponents of abrogation have going for them is the obviously checkered track record of the present dispensation when it comes to honoring its international obligations. The more malicious could say it’s genetic: President Diosdado Macapagal changed our Independence Day in a fit of pique over the US Congress’ own foot-dragging over recognizing the benefits due USAFFE veterans. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself, after basking in Bush’s warmth after hopping on to the Coalition of the Willing, hopped off willy-nilly over public outrage over an OFW being taken hostage in Iraq (where Filipinos insisted on going even after the government imposed a travel ban to the country). At the time, much as I had opposed joining that coalition in the first place, I expressed misgivings about suddenly backing out when we could have done so in a less precipitate manner. One consequence of that decision was cozying up to China, and that coziness in turn garnered the country a black eye because of the World Bank’s findings concerning collusion among Chinese and Filipino contractors and their political godfathers.
Since the President has a zigzagging record when it comes to international commitments, it would be logical to think it within the realm of possibility that given enough domestic pressure, she might be convinced to junk the VFA, since her efforts to attract attention from the new American administration haven’t been paying off.
But it might be more reasonable to suggest that what we’re seeing is mere saber-rattling: attracting attention by means of making aggressive noises - which might force America to grant concessions to an administration starved of attention. And also, since all politics is local, there are other benefits to fostering the impression there is a domestic crisis of confidence in the Philippine-US alliance.
Notice how all the headlines the Palace considers problematic have been sidelined by the chest-thumping of administration senators who know they aren’t in a position to actually do anything about the VFA. And who also probably know the President may be pretending to be scared stiff by their rhetoric but won’t act on it to immediately cancel, say, the forthcoming Balikatan military exercises in the Bicol region.
There is a genuine - and formidable - constituency lobbying for the abrogation of the VFA, consisting of feminists who’ve set aside their factional differences in support of “Nicole,” the various factions of the Left, traditional nationalists, and so forth. These are, however, groups the administration has never been warm towards; in fact, the administration has devoted a tremendous amount of time and resources actively fighting them by every means, fair and foul. These are also constituencies that are more effective in national rather than local terms and thus accounts for the posturing of administration senators but who will not be a major factor in whatever plans the administration has when it comes to 2010.
Organized and militant as these groups may be, their sustained opposition to the VFA, even if amplified by the media, isn’t necessarily proof of widespread public outrage. From the very start, the just cause of “Nicole” sparked hostility on the part of many of her countrymen, who hypocritically refused to support a fellow citizen on the basis of their judgment of her allegedly loose morals (and her being a woman). Add to that a significant number of Filipinos who preferred to take the side of a crude and lewd US Marine on the simple principle that America can do no wrong, and you had, at the very least, a country divided over the Smith case.
Consider the other constituencies that, conceivably, constitute a large, even majority percentage of the population of the country, regardless of their feelings concerning the case. Hoteliers and entrepreneurs in Subic and Clark who earn from American R&R; the two-thirds (?) of the population that at the time of the closure of the US bases, would have voted to keep those bases; the Moro factions who appreciate USAID efforts in Mindanao and who consider the Americans an ally in their Bangsamoro aspirations; the citizens who have expressed support for the Balikatan exercises; the Armed Forces that is dependent on American logistical support; and even veterans and US visa holders who might panic over the consequences of a sudden cold war between Manila and Washington and the abandonment of the tangible signs of alliance.
All might argue that if our very own defense secretary says the country could do better - pointing to a less ambiguous VFA with Australia, and here it’s interesting to note the administration chest-thumpers haven’t brought up abrogating that treaty - then by all means Manila should immediately move to renegotiate unclear provisions since the new American dispensation would be amenable to such things.
The main problem is that the US Embassy has an undue advantage – possession of Smith is nine-tenth of the law -precisely because the President and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno made it possible, which shows any agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if the attitude of our own officials is a weasly one to begin with.
At this point no national consensus on whether to junk our entire alliance with America exists. The headlines are being cluttered with an artificial construct favorable to the administration. It will use it to its own advantage and no one else’s.