Enduring alliance

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno -
President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo flies to the US for meetings with President George Bush and other senior American officials.

The visit underscores an alliance that has endured from the age of geopolitics to the age of globalized terror. It is an alliance of common purpose and intersecting concerns.

Our alliance with the US, more than any other issue, demonstrates the cultural distance between the urban intelligentsia and the masses. While it is fashionable for the intelligentsia to constantly maintain a strident anti-American posture, opinion polls show sustained warmth towards the trans-Pacific partnership.

During the great US bases debate in 1991, three-quarters of the Filipino public wanted American military presence to continue. That preference was subordinated by the will of the cultural elite, which was sharply nationalist, anti-American and obsessed with a rigid understanding of sovereignty.

The Bases Treaty was not extended by the Philippine Senate. It was vote historic for other reasons. It was one of those rare instances when the Senate defied both the Presidency and the majority of the public.

Over the past several years, the orthodox nationalist factions led by the leftist groups, tried very hard to block or at least disrupt the conduct of the Balikatan exercises. Their efforts have been futile. Again, three-quarters of the population strongly supports the joint military exercises between Filipino and American forces.

In fact, a clear majority of public opinion prefers that the better-trained and better-equipped American troops be directly engaged in combat with those armed groups responsible for pestering our peace.

Filipino nationalism draws a lot of its compelling emotional force from the chagrin experienced by a generation that bravely fought a war of independence against a dying colonial master only to lose a war of re-occupation by an emerging world power. The force of that emotion, however, diminishes with every passing generation, each one more removed from the chagrin than the one preceding.

The political Left is heavily invested in this declining emotional base. It is likewise heavily invested in other declining social sectors: the peasantry is being absorbed into the ranks of free farmers; and the industrial working class is being swamped by the army of micro-entrepreneurs.

A certain schizophrenia afflicts our popular political culture.

We want our candidates to indulge in nationalist rhetoric. Say things like: better a Philippines run like hell by Filipinos.

But after getting themselves elected, our leaders validate their mandate by an almost obligatory Washington reception. Local pundits measure the political weight of a new president by such indicators as: being invited to address the US Congress jointly convened, whether or not the American president takes time out to host a dinner for the visiting ally or whether the leader is there on a state visit or simply on a working tour.

Gestures of warmth might not impress the Americans. But they obsess the Filipinos.

After the Pinatubo eruption, we were slighted when, after the utility of Clark was lost, the US offered only half the original compensation for use of the other remaining base at Subic. To the Americans, that made perfect business sense. To the Filipinos, it was an act of betrayal by a friend during a time of natural calamity when assistance was needed most.

By the traditional measures of validation, President Macapagal-Arroyo’s visit rates high on the scale of symbolic gestures. She will not only have a state dinner organized in her honor by President Bush, she will actually be invited to the ranch.

This is the equivalent of inviting George W. Bush to the town fiesta of Lubao. Only national leaders held in very high personal esteem by the American leader gets invited to Texas.

Had the war on terror not happened, it would be very difficult to imagine a Filipino leader getting the preferential treatment President Gloria will be enjoying over the next few days.

Even before we kicked out the bases, they were useless to the Americans. They were more a symbolic presence in the region than a vital military facility.

In the early nineties, the threat posed by China substantially subsided. US military doctrine shifted to the reliance on air power from reliance on naval assets, to rapid deployment forces from forwardly deployed troops. Clark and Subic were expensive showcases of American determination to maintain stability in a region made stable by rising prosperity.

From September 18, 1991 until September 11, 2001, the Philippines was out of Washington’s radar screen. We were a strange little country swept by archaic public emotions. With regional security increasingly ensured by multilateral dialogue, we lost much of the strategic value we enjoyed when the sluggish US Navy was the global force to contend with.

After international terrorism jumped to the top of the world’s security agenda, however, the Philippines regained its status as a most favored ally. Burdened with a nagging war with Islamic secessionist movements, favored as a transit point for merchants of terror and attacked directly by international terrorists ahead of the twin towers, we were – not by choice – a frontline state.

Under the leadership of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines has been a strong voice for the war against terror in every regional forum. We took a strong position in pushing collective anti-terrorist networks at the APEC and at the Asean Regional Forum. We offset the reluctance of our two Islamic neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. We supported the action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. We stood staunchly with the US in the "coalition of the willing" that toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

Chirac, Putin and Schroeder were unreliable partners. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for her part, defied momentarily unfavorable public opinion to endorse the moral validity of the action against Saddam.

Unlike Turkey, we did not abandon an ally on the lurch.

We stood by the US not because we were flunkeys or lapdogs or lackeys. We stood by the US because it was the right thing to do at this time.

Fighting the international networks of terror is as much to our interest as it is to the Americans’ interest. Ensuring a world that is free and at peace is as much our native vision of the future as it is Washington’s.

The President’s visit to Washington is not a mission of mendicancy. It is a gesture underscoring the common values and visions that make our strategic alliance an enduring one.

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