POSTSCRIPT / January 29, 2002 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bush following GMA tack on US involvement

SOBRA NA! TAMA NA!: The debate over the coming of US forces has dragged on too long. There are no more new arguments being brought out. Meanwhile, the people are getting impatient for a final solution to the Abu Sayyaf problem.

If the opposition and the Left don’t have any new argument, and can’t offer any alternative anyway, they should now shut up so the RP-US military exercise on Basilan can begin and be done with. And the Abu Sayyaf taught a lesson.

The guidelines issued by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are clear enough to assure most people of good faith that “Balikatan” is indeed a joint exercise, not a joint combat operation, covered by the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

The President has told the nation that the Americans involved in Balikatan will number a little over 600, most of them being support and administrative personnel. Their mission is to train their Filipino counterparts in six months. Only two US soldiers will be assigned to each Filipino combat company (around 100 men) and the duo will stay with the command post most of the time. When the field exercise is held in a combat zone, the GIs on the spot will be armed. If attacked, they will fire back in self-defense.

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SPECULATIONS, FEARS: Until the contrary is demonstrated, President Arroyo must be presumed to be telling the truth and that she intends to enforce the guidelines. It is premature, and unkind, to say at this point that the guidelines are just for show and that Balikatan will violate the VFA or other bilateral arrangements.

So let’s all pipe down and give the soldiers enough space to do their job. Let’s see Balikatan through, then judge the joint exercise after the fact, not on the basis of speculations gone wild even before the joint exercise could start.

If the opposition and the Left want to continue arguing, they can file a suit with the court and there argue all they want. But meantime, it makes sense to follow the wishes of the overwhelming majority who are growing impatient over the Abu Sayyaf problem.

The way the opposition and the Left are growing hoarse objecting, one gets the impression they are worried that the Arroyo administration might just succeed, with US aid, in wiping out the Abu Sayyaf.

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BUSH SAW THE POINT: Judging from their pronouncements, American leaders from President George W. Bush down originally had in mind a deeper combat involvement of the US Special Forces in the Basilan campaign. Even the US troops and their commanders marched like they were programmed for Afghanistan-Part II combat.

That triggered agitated objections in Manila, which is hypersensitive to foreign meddling and to suggestions of GI Joe coming back to reclaim the military bases.

The anti-US storm may have blown GMA with it had she not acted fast to nip speculations, fed by reports from American media and officialdom, that the US Cavalry would soon gallop in to rescue an American couple being held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf.

In phone consultations, GMA reportedly explained to Bush the rising temper of her constituents loudly objecting to US Special Forces virtually taking over from the Philippine armed forces. She reiterated her position spelled out in previous meetings that Filipino soldiers could and should handle the Abu Sayyaf, but that they need logistical help.

With GMA obviously knowing the local ground situation better, Bush saw the point and reportedly agreed to realign the sights of the US military. That enabled GMA, after days of temporizing, to finally spell out the detailed guidelines for Balikatan.

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SENATE BAITING TITO: Until yesterday, Vice President Teofisto Guingona had managed to shake off attempts of his former colleagues in the Senate to use him to embarrass President Arroyo on the issue of US forces joining a military exercise on Basilan.

With Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo, the Vice President heads the caretaker team tasked to tend to Executive operations while the President is on a 10-day trip to London, Toronto and New York.

What’s the point in asking Guingona to regale the Senate with stories about his policy differences with the President? The intention is clearly to bring out the rough details of how Executive policy is evolved. It’s pure destabilization, and the Vice President knows it. Dapat tigilan na siya ng mga senador.

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WANTED — IRON LADY: There is nothing sinister in Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s getting tough, according to much of the feedback received in reaction to our observation in Postscript (27Jan2002) that GMA may be consciously cultivating the image of an emerging “Iron Lady.”

Extrapolating the feedback, we see a growing number of Filipinos getting impatient for sweeping firm action, even occasional cutting of corners, to finally curb runaway corruption, cut down criminality and nurse the economy back to health.

Many readers pine for a president who would be able to whip into line this unruly nation. This is one of the reasons why such figures as Alfredo Lim and Panfilo Lacson, police officers known for their no-nonsense handling of discipline problems, score high in national polls.

A number of readers warn, however, against a “strong” and abusive president giving undue advantage to favored friends and family members. The message appears to be that an “Iron Lady” must not only be firm but also fair if she wants a supportive public.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 29, 2002)

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