The US factor — once more

The Philippines is probably one of the few remaining countries in the world for whom the United States government’s every word functions as a cue in domestic politics.  Our obsessive American orientation is legendary.  For a long time, we were known as a nation that allowed its presidents to be chosen, and dismissed, by America.  Filipino politicians themselves believe this to be the case, which is why we are not blessed with many leaders who have the audacity to speak openly against America’s wishes in defense of the national interest.

If one is aspiring for the presidency, such impudence is considered an automatic disqualification.  And if one happens to be the incumbent president, such is seen as an invitation to an early retirement.  The internalization of this unhealthy attitude by our leaders has trapped Philippine foreign policy in the time warp of Cold War geopolitics.  It explains our blindness to the complex realities of a multi-polar world.

The truth is that America does not always think about us, nor is it ever concerned with the pace or quality of our growth as a nation. Throughout the fifty years following the grant of independence, America’s interests in our country were largely framed by the need to maintain and project its presence in the region through the US military facilities in Clark and Subic.  Our politicians were aware of this, and they did not hesitate to use it to leverage their own personal dealings with Washington.

Of all our presidents, Marcos was probably the craftiest player of the US card. He had superb timing.  One year after he defeated the reelectionist Diosdado Macapagal in the 1965 presidential election, he got the US to agree to shorten the lease period of the US Military Bases Agreement from the original 99 years (from 1947) to just 25 years (starting 1966).  This was a major revision of this onerous agreement, and Marcos obtained it in exchange for the expanded use of Clark and Subic as staging and logistical support facilities for the growing number of US forces fighting in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Marcos could not have declared Martial Law in 1972 without the explicit or tacit approval of the US.  A report prepared for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Philippine situation a few months after Marcos seized power as a dictator stated: “Thus, US officials appear prepared to accept that the strengthening of presidential authority will…enable President Marcos to introduce needed stability; that these objectives are in our interest; and that… military bases and a familiar government in the Philippines are more important than the preservation of democratic institutions which were imperfect at best.”

As a reliable guarantor of US interests in the Philippines, Marcos got all the assistance he needed, but this did not stop him from demanding more for the bases.  In his finely documented work “The United States in the Philippines,” Stephen Shalom captured the essence of the nationalist rhetoric that occasionally issued from Malacanang. “The militant rhetoric was aimed at getting a better price for the bases.  Rather than viewing martial law as an impediment to US strategic interests in the Philippines, Washington considered the absence of a Congress in which speakers tried to outbid one another in nationalist rhetoric as a real advantage to the United States in any negotiations that might take place regarding the bases.”

With the expiration of the Military Bases Agreement in September 1991, and the Senate’s rejection of a new treaty under the astute and unflinching leadership of Senate President Jovito Salonga, the main constitutive ingredient of Philippine-American relations vanished overnight.  And for the next ten years, the Philippines disappeared from the US radar screen.

In May 1999, then President Joseph Estrada, who, as a senator, voted against a new bases treaty, found himself endorsing a Visiting Forces Agreement to the Senate, little knowing this was going to be the framework that would bring back US troops on a regular basis. His gesture of subservience did not prevent Washington from recognizing the succession of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, following the civilian-military coup that ousted Erap from the presidency in 2001.

Today, the US needs no permanent bases; the VFA gives American troops a collective “green card” to stay in the Philippines under the guise of participating in joint military exercises.  They are concentrated in Mindanao. Why Mindanao?  Thoughtful observers beleve that the US has a strategic agenda in Mindanao that is fartherreaching than the war against terrorism.

President Arroyo is undoubtedly attentive to the US factor and its uses in domestic politics. That is why no other Philippine president has pursued a meeting with the US president more shamelessly.  In the remaining months of her presidency, we will be watching how she plays the American card in relation to her political ambitions.  That recent meeting with President Obama was apparently historic only in her own mind.  Senator Miriam Santiago, Ms Arroyo’s staunch ally, offers a nuanced account of the meeting.  “She said it (her stopping down at the end of her term) because the US President was talking about the global war on terror.  And she was saying, in effect, I will help as long as I can, and that is the context in which she added the statement: ‘I’ll be out of office by July 2010’.  But President Obama did not have any particular response at that point.”  Obama, in short, ignored the bait, no doubt aware that even a polite suggestion that his guest carry on beyond 2010 could be misappropriated.


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