Saving Ms Arroyo

We can’t expect America and Australia, and all the other nations that supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to understand the full complexity of President Arroyo’s dilemma.  To them, the choice is merely between giving in to the demands of Iraqi terrorists to save one Filipino worker’s life and keeping our troops in Iraq in order to honor an international commitment.  Any self-respecting government, they say, would give priority to its commitments. To appreciate the context of the president’s decision to withdraw the Filipino troops in Iraq in exchange for the life of Angelo de la Cruz, one would have to take into account a few of the realities we face.

The first is the reality of the nation’s collective guilt over the deployment of millions of its desperate citizens to various work sites in the world where it cannot protect them. Our government has called them “modern heroes” in recognition of the billions of dollars they send home every year.  But this compliment hardly repays the social costs that they must often bear in the form of broken lives and dysfunctional families.  The overseas Filipino worker phenomenon has produced a thick residue of resentment that weighs heavily upon relationships within both the Filipino family and the nation as a whole. Every tragedy in the OFW family becomes an occasion for the release of this resentment.  Every publicized misfortune of an OFW abroad is potential ground for a Flor Contemplacion convulsion. Neither Francis Ricciardone nor Jay Leno would know this.

The second is the reality of an unexplained foreign policy of intervening in a distant war without a strong moral and legal warrant. True, in the past most Filipinos automatically took the side of America wherever its superpower adventurism might take it.  But that was when they knew no other country but the US.  Today the Middle East is a place of work for more than one million Filipinos.  Eight million of our people live and work in more than 150 countries.  Our foreign policy cannot ignore this reality.  Loyalty to America will be measured inevitably against the dangers our own nationals face when they are perceived as citizens of an enemy nation.  Angelo de la Cruz’s town mates may not understand the whys and wherefores of George W. Bush’s war, but they will immediately see the folly of a president who recklessly gambles the lives of her own citizens just to please America.

And the third is the reality of a politically insecure president who has the unenviable task of explaining and justifying the Philippines’ continuing involvement in a war that a growing number of Americans now consider unnecessary.  Since the May 10 election we’ve had in our country a volatile situation in search of a spark. The president’s victory at the polls remains shrouded in doubt.  While the nation slept, Ms Arroyo’s allies in Congress hurriedly proclaimed her the winner on the basis of certificates of canvass that many think have been doctored. She won big in 3 provinces but lost in most of the regions of the country, including Metro Manila.  The last thing she needs today is an incident that can explode into a crisis of legitimacy.  The decision to pull out the troops from Iraq is as much about saving the presidency of Ms Arroyo as it is about saving the life of Angelo.

The convergence of these three political and sociological realities – an unjustified war, a helpless Filipino OFW, and a politically insecure president — lends a unique quality to this crisis. The situation would have been different if the victim had not been an OFW but a member of the Filipino peacekeeping contingent.  There would still be loud calls to withdraw the troops, but the government would not have felt as strongly pressured.  Similarly, if Angelo’s abductors had demanded  not the withdrawal of Filipino troops but, say, the release of Abu Sayyaf members from Philippine prisons, the government’s response would have been a firm rejection of the demand.  And finally, if Arroyo’s victory in the May 10 polls had been more convincing – if her legitimacy had been stronger – I believe she would have risked a momentary slide in popularity at home to please America.

Ms Arroyo’s foreign critics are thus being too harsh when they call her a weak and indecisive president.  Had she ignored the demand of the Iraqi extremists, she would now be facing a fullblown popular uprising from which even George W. Bush would not be able to rescue her.

The neoconservatives in the US may feel aggrieved over this small setback in their Iraq strategy, but they ought to know that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo remains their staunchest and most loyal ally not only in the Philippines but in the entire region.  Unfortunately for us Filipinos, however, the withdrawal of Filipino soldiers from Iraq represents neither a nationalist awakening, nor a principled reappraisal of our policy toward Iraq in the light of the US Senate’s own findings that the reasons for war had been irresponsibly exaggerated.  A voluntary withdrawal would certainly have been more honorable.

The only consolation we can derive from all this is that we are made aware once more of the responsibilities that a government assumes when it pushes its people to find work in other countries.   Thirty years after embarking on a labor export program, I think we’ve not fully realized what this demands in terms of adjustments in foreign policy and in the nature of consular work abroad.  The first obligation of a government is always to its people, wherever they may be.  A president who forgets that will not be around for long.


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