The Long View
The next proconsul
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:01:00 07/12/2009
There will, undoubtedly, be a lot of sniffing around for signs concerning Washington’s message to the President in the wake of CIA chief Leon Panetta’s Palace visit Sunday. Babe Romualdez, for one, is widely considered a kind of oracle concerning Washington’s intentions and he framed the issue by pooh-poohing the Palace’s statement that it was an ordinary meeting. To be sure, the Palace was forced to react to a scoop by The Daily Tribune which first broke the story of Panetta’s visit, subsequently fleshed out by the Philippine Star which prides itself on its being in-the-know as far as the US Embassy and Washington are concerned.
The Press Secretary waxed cryptic – “His visit is self-evidently related to the ongoing war on terror of which the bombings here may well be a part” – blathered Cerge Remonde, adding that it was upon the request of the Americans and what’s more, was scheduled a month ago. Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro on July 9 confessed himself out of the loop, saying he didn’t know the agenda, though reporters failed to ask why he seemed content with not knowing or preparing for such a high-level visit. But then Remonde was contradicted by the Department of Foreign Affair’s own spokesman, Ed Malaya, who did say it was purely a “courtesy call” but that “the visit is unrelated to certain developments in Mindanao.”
What developments? Romualdez firmly framed the meeting in terms of an unfelicitously phrased comment by Joseph Mussomeli – remember him? Formerly of the American Embassy in Manila and now detailed to Afghanistan, he said that Mindanao is a “Mecca” for terrorists and might just become the next Afghanistan: Romualdez emphasized that Mussomeli wouldn’t “dare say such a thing without a go-signal from the State Department.”
According to Romualdez, a month ago, when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the country, the American commitment to Mindanao remained more in terms of development, the military component being limited to “intelligence sharing, training and coordination.” In that context, a Panetta visit coming on the heels of Gates’ would’ve indicated maintaining the status quo. Which is precisely what’s piqued interest in Panetta’s Sunday stopover: the bombings in Mindanao have changed the situation on the ground.
The charitable conclusion’s that the DFA reflects the state of things a month ago while the Press Secretary’s statements reflect the Palace’s desire to portray itself as a key front. Hence the rumor mill’s obsession with the possibility of the President sounding out the Americans for carte blanche in Mindanao.
But Romualdez also framed Panetta’s visit in terms of American official concern over the drug trade being connected to terrorist training. And in this regard, he drops some broad hints about big drug syndicates with connections to very powerful people. The whole narcopolitics angle has been brought up before, as a game-changer, together with gambling lord money, in local politics.
Romualdez estimated the drug industry as a billion-peso-a-day one: that’s P365 billion a year or $7.5 billion. Enough to warrant American attention? The American DEA in 2006 estimated the value of the Columbian drug trade at $1.5 billion a year; Time Magazine in 2008 mentioned a $25 billion-a-year trafficking industry in Mexico; and an American naval officer’s proposed 2005 thesis estimated the global drug trade at $300-500 billion, although the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) estimated the world illegal drug market to range between $45 billion and $280 billion.
The thing is, an administration that perpetually brags of its near-total dominance in the lower house, and governorships and mayorships, would necessarily end up saddled, by sheer force of probabilities, with more than its fair share of gambling and drug lord-funded allies. Surely an inconvenient thing to look into going into an election year.
Nicholas Kralev, in the July 10 Washington Times (a right-leaning Moonie-owned paper), reported a State Department rumpus caused by the Obama administration supposedly being poised to exceed the 30 percent informal quota on political appointees to ambassadorships. The report says Manila and Lima will go to political appointees rather than career diplomats – Harry K. Thomas Jr., until recently director-general of the Foreign Service, and Kristie Kenney’s putative successor, seems no longer headed here.
Much will hinge, for those obsessed with Washington and Roxas Boulevard-watching, to see if the State Department ends up announcing the posting of an otherwise meaningless political appointee, possibly with an eye toward commerce, or whether the next US ambassador will possess credentials within the national security establishment or is a known protege of a national security bigwig. If the former, then Washington is less concerned about politics and more about preserving or expanding business here; if the latter, they think something’s afoot – or deserves, at least, someone capable of keeping a close eye – on Mindanao, Manila or both?
There used to be a saying in the 1960s that the three most important people in the Philippines were the US ambassador, the head of the Lopez family and the President of the Philippines – in that order. That perception endures somewhat, though since the closing of the US bases Manila, while undeniably a plum post for careerists, has long dwindled in importance in the strategic scheme of things.
As it is, the Panetta visit can’t be separated from John Negroponte’s unannounced December 2005 visit, when he nipped a planned declaration of martial law in the bud, on the eve of Virgilio Garcillano’s testifying in the House – when, quite possibly, the Palace expected all hell to break loose.