Questions for P-Noy

Those who criticize President Benigno Aquino III for his handling of the Mamasapano incident accuse him of insensitivity and incompetence. These are vague charges, but they have a resonance that no president must ignore. I think they have to do less with personal virtue or functional ability, but more with what people seek most in their leaders—wisdom.

A judgment of insensitivity is relative to expectations of how much feeling or concern is required in given situations. A rational demeanor in the face of high emotions could easily be interpreted as indifference—an inability to feel the pain of others. That President Aquino chose to attend the inauguration of a car factory rather than be present at the arrival of the caskets of 44 police officers who died in a dangerous mission suggests a weird appreciation of what is required of a leader at crucial moments in a nation’s life. But people in positions of power do the strangest things for reasons that are not easy to fathom. We can’t judge them on the basis of a single incident.

Competence, on the other hand, means the effective performance of one’s duties. A charge of incompetence could lead to dismissal. But unless the objectives of a given office and performance criteria are agreed upon, it is not easy to prove incompetence. This is true even more in the case of elective positions. So many ambitious men and women attain public office without even the slightest idea of what their functions are. Yet, as far as I know, no politician has ever been legally removed from office for incompetence. The only sanction available against incompetent elective officials is to reject them the next time they run for office.

President Aquino has been accused of incompetence in the handling of the Mamasapano incident. It is a charge that is often invoked in relation to his role as Commander in Chief. Section 18, Article VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution states: “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of all armed forces of the Philippines and whenever it becomes necessary, he may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.” This section actually deals with the emergency powers of the President—powers that have to do with the deployment of the coercive force of the state under extraordinary conditions such as invasion, rebellion, or widespread lawlessness. The use of these powers requires a declaration by the President of the existence of a situation. At no point were these special powers activated for the Mamasapano operation.19

Indeed, the Mamasapano mission has been described as a normal police operation aimed at capturing two highly wanted criminals. Standard protocols govern the conduct of such missions. In general, that is how President Aquino himself portrayed the Jan. 25 Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) mission to capture the notorious bomb-makers Marwan and Usman. The plan had been cleared long before it was actually carried out.

From Day One, P-Noy told the nation that he knew about this mission. He had been briefed about it, he said, and indeed, he was updated on its progress from the morning of Jan. 25. He also said that based on his own preliminary assessment, major lapses had been committed, chief of which was the absence of prior coordination with the military. He said that the mission could have been aborted or altered when certain conditions were not met. From these admissions, one could glean that P-Noy knew more of what happened, and expressed far more interest in the details of this operation, than one would ordinarily expect of a president.

There is nothing wrong in that. Indeed, special praise is sometimes given to leaders who, not content with delegating functions, adopt a “hands-on” approach to some aspects of their work. But, with direct participation comes direct responsibility. This is the crux of the issue. It is not enough for President Aquino to say that, as father of the nation, he takes full responsibility for what happened. A statement like that sounds too rhetorical: It conceals rather than eases the burden of accountability.

If he wishes to regain the trust of his “bosses,” P-Noy has no choice but to assume the obligation to answer the hard questions. That is what “responsibility” means literally—the obligation to respond.

The most basic of these questions have to do with wisdom—the ability to see and hence to know:

  1. When P-Noy met the police officials who briefed him about the mission against Marwan and Usman on Jan. 9, and told them “to coordinate,” did he mean to coordinate not just with the military but also with the committee overseeing the cessation of hostilities with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?
  2. Did he not foresee that the conduct of such a risky mission at this time could result not only in the loss of many lives, but also in the shattering of the fragile ceasefire and peace agreement with the MILF?
  3. What special reason(s) did he have, if any, for not consulting his immediate political family—at the very least the security cluster of his Cabinet—on the implications of this mission for the peace process?
  4. Did he not anticipate the complications of allowing the then suspended PNP director general, Alan Purisima, to play an active role in this mission, while keeping his own interior secretary, Mar Roxas, and the PNP officer in charge, Leonardo Espina, uninformed?
  5. What moves did he take, and what instructions did he give, if any, to save the trapped SAF commandos when he learned they were being besieged by enemy fire?
  6. What role did the Americans play in the mission to capture Marwan and Usman?

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