Reading between the leaks

The publication of stolen documents purporting to be highly-classified cables sent by various United States missions from all over has fueled all kinds of reactions in the countries that are the subject of the reports. Some take the form of wounded pride, others of a sense of having been betrayed. Last Sept. 1, more than 2,000 cables sent from the US Embassy in Manila were released in one go by WikiLeaks, causing quite a stir in the country’s political and business circles.

Reading them, one comes away with a view of American diplomats as either highly informed and well-connected, or as hopelessly ignorant and shallow. There is, in fact, little in these cables that well-informed locals do not already know.

But, what one may find remarkable in these reports – that is bound to affect the reception of American diplomats everywhere – is the patronizing and sometimes contemptuous tone that runs through them as they narrate encounters with the flawed leaders of lesser cultures. This may come as a vexing realization to many people, Filipinos in particular, who tend to regard US diplomats as among the friendliest in the world.

We warmly respond when we are addressed by these officials of the world’s most powerful country by our first names. We welcome them into our hearts like long lost relatives, and do everything to make them feel at home. Our public officials readily take them into their confidence, freely sharing secrets and seeking advice from them, forgetting these are professionals assigned here to be the eyes and ears of their government and businessmen. While our loyalties are personal and individual, theirs are professional and institutional. But, occasionally, some of them become so integrated into the local scene that they lose their objectivity as observers.

Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney’s disdain for Noynoy Aquino is matched only by her admiration for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She invited candidate Aquino to her residence for coffee just before she ended her tour of duty. Here are excerpts of the cable she sent on Jan. 22, 2010:  “Clearly more relaxed and self-possessed than in previous encounters, Senator Aquino appeared to have emerged from the shadow of the towering political legacy of his parents, former President Corazon Aquino and political martyr Senator Benigno Aquino Jr…. Previous contacts with Senator Aquino, often accompanying his mother, former President Cory Aquino, left the impression of a diffident, unassertive man continuing a political tradition handed on by his parents but not carving out his own legacy….  Queried for his views on issues like Mindanao, the economy and foreign policy, Senator Aquino did not provide any clear policy proposals, but stressed the importance of clearing up the legacy of corruption and cronyism of the Arroyo administration.”

In contrast, she is impressed by candidate Gilbert Teodoro who struck her as having “many positive attributes, including an impressive intellect, an excellent grasp of policy and strong public speaking skills, but he clearly lacks natural talent for and interest in the glad-handing and backroom dealing that so often characterize politics.”  In the same cable, Kenney notes: “Teodoro voiced relief that Arroyo was not significantly involved in his efforts, as he recognized her unpopularity with most voters made her a liability.”

It’s interesting that the ambassador chose not to dwell on this point, whereas, in another cable, she had something to say about the “weak” presidency of Cory Aquino, an era in Philippine politics she did not actually witness.  She reserved her best words for Arroyo. Indeed, Arroyo repaid her admiration by conferring on her the Order of Sikatuna (Gold Grand Cross), the highest honor given to a diplomat.

In a cable dated Jan. 21, 2010, Kenney recounts her farewell call on President Arroyo.  “The President voiced deep appreciation for the success of our joint counterterrorism efforts in Mindanao, citing in particular the importance of the ‘hard/soft power’ paradigm that joined development assistance with military efforts to deny safe haven to extremists.  The ambassador praised President Aquino’s efforts to improve bilateral ties, her strengthening of key economic sectors and the development of a ‘nautical highway’ to link the Philippine archipelago. She urged the President to continue pursuing a comprehensive peace accord with Muslim insurgents, and not to let up on counterterrorism efforts even as her presidential term winds down.”

Reading this glowing account, Kenney’s superiors in Washington must have wondered how Arroyo became the most despised president in her nation’s political history.

The truth is the ambassador remained in denial of GMA’s dysfunctional presidency even when the facts were staring her in the face. Reporting on the Maguindanao massacre, the embassy adopted the simplistic view of the gruesome murders as the violent outcome of traditional clan rivalry. Yet they were aware of the GMA-Ampatuan link.  “The Ampatuans are staunch allies of President Arroyo, having helped her and her allies to prevail decisively in the ARMM in 2004 and 2007 elections.”

That observation would have given the embassy a better handle on the Maguindanao situation. But it ended there, allowing the ambassador to gloss over the criminal alliance between corrupt national politicians like Arroyo and equally corrupt and ruthless regional warlords like the Ampatuans.