POSTSCRIPT / November 27, 2001 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Arroyo to America: Just give us the tools!

NEW YORK — Mindanao was obviously the focus of the substantive discussions between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and President George W. Bush when she called at the White House during her one-week working visit to the United States.

It was also the single concern that merited the lion’s share in the $4.6-billion package that President Arroyo brought back from her trip.

An examination of the Bush-Arroyo joint communique issued Nov. 20 at the White House bears this out. Of the 172 lines in the statement, 93 lines (54 percent) touched on Mindanao and the depredation by the Abu Sayyaf terror group in that southwestern corner of the country.

Of the $83 million aid-assistance package approved by Mr. Bush, $55 million was dedicated to Mindanao. Actually, if we add other items in GMA’s balikbayan box, the anti-terrorism component of her pasalubong would amount to some $150 million.

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GIVE US THE TOOLS: So gung-ho was Mr. Bush about wiping out the Abu Sayyaf that he left the door open for his sending in American soldiers. Our President ruled this out, however, saying we can handle the problem ourselves.

Her remark, made in response to a press question thrown her at the White House, was reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s “Give us the tools” in the aftermath of the last world war that left British and other European cities in shambles.

We think GMA handled that delicate issue right. The temptation to bring in superior force is great, but we can and we should rehabilitate ourselves. All we need are the tools, the wherewithal to back up our resolve.

The American specialists sent to the Sulu-Basilan area to help out in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf had seen how antiquated were the weapons and hardware of Filipino soldiers chasing the terrorists.

When they had to be ferried jeepney-style on our Huey helicopters — rickety relics of the Vietnam war — we imagined that the American observers rushed their recommendations for the immediate upgrading of the equipment of our armed forces.

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REYES A SILENT WORKER: The sending in of military aid starts tomorrow, Wednesday, with the scheduled delivery of a Hercules C-130 transport plane. It’s just one, actually a huge aircraft by Philippine standards, but against the limited scope of the Sulu-Basilan campaign, it would be of great help.

While he was the least seen and least heard Cabinet man during the US visit, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes should be commended for the home work and the leg work he devoted to the military aspects of the talks at all levels.

It was not enough that the Philippine panel brought along a shopping list (a term GMA loathed to use in relation to her agenda). Reyes had to draw and present a comprehensive plan for handling terrorism and related problems in southwestern Mindanao in the context of regional or ASEAN geopolitics.

We had to show how we intended to use all that materiel that we said we needed.

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GMA’s CLEAR VISION: So preoccupied was Reyes that he was often unable to join the Cabinet panel that usually sat down with the Philippine press in the evening to discuss the day’s activities.

This detailed preparation did not escape the attention of Mr. Bush. When asked about using American troops in Sulu-Basilan, he said: “First of all, I’m willing to listen to President Arroyo. I’m willing to work with her in any way that she wants to. We’ve had discussion about Abu Sayyaf, she’s got a clear vision about how to fight Abu Sayyaf.”

Pressed to make a categorical statement about US ground troops, Mr. Bush said: “That’s going to be up to the President (Arroyo)… I have asked her pointblank what help does she need. She says she’s got a great military, a competent military, she’s confident that her military can deal with Abu Sayyaf. And for that I applaud her and wish her all the best. And we want to help her military deal with them.”

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DIFFERING WORK STYLES: As you may have expected, we asked around in our consulate here and in the embassy in Washington, DC, about a similar visit of former President Erap Estrada. The consensus was that the former president could not have handled the grueling agenda and the hard-nosed discussions the way GMA did.

One difference they noted immediately was in their work styles. Preparation was another thing.

They remembered that during Erap’s visit, most mornings were the so-called “President’s time,” some sort of free time when nobody outside the door knew what the president was doing. They also remembered the type of visitors, and the bottles they lug along, who came calling on Erap in the evening.

They noted the back-breaking schedule of meetings of GMA, starting from early morning till late in the evening. There were times when she would also join the press in our evening discussion (some of the sessions were taped for the Manila audience) of the day’s activities.

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HIGH-POWERED TEAM: As for the business meetings set up mainly to draw US investors, the American executives who came over could not help noticing that GMA’s Cabinet team had Harvard and Wharton alumni who spoke their language.

The high-powered Cabinet panel, it was also noted, was headed by no less than a doctor of economics, our President.

Some of the attendees, chief executives of major companies exploring business opportunities in the Philippines, were surprised to see GMA dropping in and joining the detailed discussions that could very well be handled by her technical team.

From the point of view of the press, we appreciated the Cabinet members’ willingness to share information with us even when talks were still ongoing. The exception, of course, was Secretary Reyes, who could not prematurely talk of the status of his mission.

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START OF DELIVERY: The military assistance will not drop from the sky in one crate. The C-130 plane will be followed this year by a $15-million Cyclone patrol boat for our navy. All in all, this year’s delivery will be worth some $20 million.

We understand that next year the US will also deliver some 30,000 upgraded M-16 assault rifles and 100 military trucks. There will also be money for upgrading the remaining Huey combat helicopters.

President Arroyo was originally lined up for a visit next year, but apparently the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks fast-tracked the consultations and the moves to rally allies in the fight against the common threat.

Such development may have been providential since this year is the 50th anniversary of the US-RP Mutual Defense Pact.

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CONTEXT OF DEFENSE PACT: Normally, the mutual defense pact is not or cannot be invoked that easily for asking the ally to spring into action when fighting breaks out. The context of the pact is an outright invasion on one (or both) of the partners.

But the US was not actually invaded last September in the traditional sense of the word. The terrorists, none of whom was an Afghan, were for some time already in the US. They just guided hijacked local passenger jets into targeted buildings. The attackers and the planes did not come from outside continental America.

In case of attacks on the Philippines, there is reference in the defense pact that the invasion must be aimed at Metropolitan Manila, possibly the US’s way of minimizing the possibility of its ever coming to the rescue of an embattled Philippines.

We suppose that if during the time when the US was maintaining military bases in the Philippines any of those installations were attacked, that would be enough provocation for the US to hit back under the cover of the mutual defense pact since the bases attacked were on Philippine soil.

There is also a reservation in the contract for the US to come to our succor only according to its constitutional processes. This means that retaliation is not automatic (except if a US base in the Philippines were attacked), and that the US cannot just war on a country invading the Philippines unless there is a formal declaration of war from the US Congress as mandated by its Constitution.

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NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: This is a curious item since in this present case, the US has invaded Afghanistan without a formal declaration of war from Congress. In short, the US is at war — and wants us involved — without first declaring war according to its avowed constitutional processes.

Despite all these observations, the bottom line is that when the superpower that is America sets its mind to do something, it just does it. Words, even Constitutions and formal bilateral treaties, have various levels of meanings at various times for various unilateral purposes.

Another point — and this could be a limp rationalization of our position — is that in this complex, hostile and fast-shrinking world, no country can ever be a loner. We have cast our lot with America, for good reason, and that’s it. For the moment, at least.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 27, 2001)

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