Sore losers

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
What blabbermouths we are in this country! La Presidenta GMA accepted "defeat" gracefully by making a sober comment, no resentment in her voice, on the Supreme Court’s 8-7 decision which junked the "People’s Initiative." This was La Gloria without the taray pout so often attributed to her.

Not so, however, were some of her subalterns, for instance Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor, who was reported as saying that GMA was "really perplexed" that those whom she had appointed to the Supreme Court "would turn out to have the harshest opinions."

Whether she really expressed that reaction in private, or not, Secretary Defensor did his President a disservice by blabbing it out in public. Since Mike is constantly at La Gloria’s elbow, of course the public now believes that, true or not, those are her sentiments.

The trouble with Mike, who was one of the Spice Boys in Congress in any earlier incarnation, is that he hasn’t graduated from the urge to "spice" things up. To begin with, GMA could not have been "perplexed" since the High Tribunal already handed down last February, three Landmark Decisions rejecting Malacañang initiatives, and the majority of those who rebuked her government in their rulings had been Justices she had appointed. So what’s new?

Moreover, Justice Antonio Carpio, who was the ponente (i.e. the guy who penned the majority resolution) may have been caustic in describing the process resorted to by Raul Lambino’s "Sigaw ng Bayan" as one "that can operate a gigantic fraud on the people," but there was no attribution of the flawed process to President GMA or Malacañang. Secretary Defensor himself must realize by now that Supreme Court Justices, whether in favor or dissenting, are well aware of the importance of an independent Supreme Court.

Surely, the Supreme Court is not infallible – in years past the High Tribunal had rendered a couple of really bum decisions – but the current Court has already shown its mettle. The narrow vote on the "People’s Initiative" demonstrates that clubbiness does not prevail in the Panganiban Supreme Court.

Even worse than Defensor’s peevish remarks was the comment of Samar Governor Ben Evardone who alleged that Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban (who’s retiring on December 6) plans to run for the Senate in imitation of the late Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan who ran for the Senate after retiring as Chief Justice. (Fernan, before he died of cancer, even achieved the Senate presidency). What was a low blow was the threat voiced by Evardone that if Panganiban runs for a Senate seat he will "surely lose" because all of the 6.3 million signatories of the "Initiative" for Charter change would vote him down.

Where Evardone got his alleged information is mystifying since Panganiban told this writer yesterday that he never had any intention of running for the Senate.

What ought to bother Defensor and Evardone – indeed, the gentleman himself hinted to The STAR that there are moves to eject him from the Cabinet – were the comments of one of their own, Secretary of National Defense Avelino "Nonong" Cruz.

As this newspaper quoted him yesterday in a page one banner story, Nonong had described the "People’s Initiative" as "a legally harebrained idea" and that "it was tailor-made and designed to suit a particular agenda." Susmariosep, Nonong, if you were still a practising trial lawyer and mere co-founder of The Firm (Carpio, Villaraza, Cruz) you could speak out candidly that way.

Alas, as a member of La Presidenta’s Cabinet, he should have kept his mouth shut, although I do agree with him about the "harebrained idea" part. A Cabinet member belongs to the President’s "family" and should always help in circling the wagons – as in the old American West – to defend La Gloria’s expedition from the attacking "Indians," instead of playing the part of War Chief leading the "Indian" attack. Perhaps Secretary Cruz was misquoted? Further affiant sayeth not.

Oh well, That’s our Pinoy-style. We’re the champions of the Unguarded Comment.
* * *
However, we’re not unique in this. Perhaps a major reason the Americans are losing in Iraq is that both the Iraqis and their own soldiers and marines trapped in that quagmire (quicksand?) in the desert are getting all sorts of mixed signals from their over-talkative leaders and opposition critics back home in the USA.

President George W. Bush has been saying in a series of press conferences that Americans should vote on November 7th for the Republican Party, because that Grand Old Party protects America and keeps it safe (from another 9/11, etc.) and keeps the economy strong – by tax cuts, etc. On Iraq, he vows the goal of victory remains the same, only strategy may have to be revised, etc. The next week and a half are crucial to Mr. Bush, with the Democrats gaining strongly in the surveys. All the opposition Democrats need to gain control in the House of Representatives is to annex 15 more seats – plus six to capture the Senate.

The scent of Vietnam Redux is all over the place. In its latest issue, The Economist of London (October 28th-November 3rd shows a soldier jogging towards a waiting helicopter and above it the cover headline: "CUT AND RUN?"

The weekly newsmagazine in its lead editorial admitted an earlier error, which is rare for editorial pundits to do. It said: "For politicians (and newspapers like ours) who argued strongly for the invasion of Iraq, it is no longer enough to accuse those who want to head for the exit of ‘cutting and running,’ as if using a pejorative phrase settled the argument either way. Cutting your losses is sometimes the sensible thing to do, even for a superpower, and even after paying a heavy price in lost lives and wasted money. If you genuinely believe, as many people now do, that the likeliest long-term outcome in Iraq is that America will end up cutting and running anyway, with no improvement to be expected even three or four years hence, why simply postpone the inevitable?"

After such eloquent lines, however, The Economist expressed a caveat, saying that "failure may not be inevitable."

Iraq, the magazine asserted, "is not poised to become the exemplary democracy the American neocoms dreamed of carving out in the heart of the Arab world… (but a failure to turn Iraq into Switzerland means neither that Iraq is fated to collapsed altogether nor that its people are doomed to perpetual fratricidal war."

It fudges the question, however, of whether by "persevering" America "stands at least a chance of putting Iraq on a more stable trajectory. By leaving, it is almost certain to make matters worse."

That agonizing debate can go on and on.

It will forever be a question mark, for example, that if the Americans had persevered in South Vietnam, they might have prevented a Viet Cong and North Vietnamese victory.

The irony of it is that when the Communist forces did overrun Saigon in 1975, visiting on the South the most terrible repression involving arrests, torture, and the exacting of widespread revenge for more than 20 years – thus the panic-stricken exodus of 1.3 million "boat people" – Vietnam changed, cast bitterness aside, and now welcomes former "boat people", who enriched themselves as exiles in the USA and elsewhere as heroic and patriotic "investors."

Americans who fought in the war return to old battlefields in droves, for tearful "reunions" with the very V.C. who had fought with them, bloodily, manu a mano, in bone-grinding combat.

Witness the banner headline in last Wednesday’s (October 25) issue of the International Herald Tribune: "Business Flocks to Thriving Vietnam". The subhead proclaimed: "As Hanoi Prepares to Join WTO (the World Trade Organization). It Surpasses Rivals."

The rivals includes us in the Philippines.

The cheerful dispatch from Ho Chi Minh City (which everybody still calls "Saigon") by correspondent Keith Bradsher declared: "In three decades, Vietnam had gone from war to communism to capitalism to become the second-fastest growing economy in Asia." Wow! There’s more: "It’s the latest Asian economic tiger to merit a comparison with China, the only economy it trails. Vietnam’s economic speed has it passing Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and even India, its closest rival over the past five years…"

We weren’t even mentioned as being in the competition.

The Herald Tribune is wholly-owned by The New York Times and surely the same report appeared in the mother newspaper’s pages.

I’ve been back to Hanoi three times, my last foray there over two years ago had been to greet and interview the retired but then still redoubtable architect of V.C. and North Vietnamese military victory (the conqueror of Dien Bien Phu), Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. The Vietnamese are, by and large, still "poor," and work for a song. But there is initiative, talent, and optimism in the air.

The cause of Bradsher’s rejoicing was a landmark Board meeting held in Ho Chi Minh City of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. The directors who converged on the former South Vietnamese presidential palace, subsequently the base for the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee to impose tight Communist control, had discussed Vietnam’s economic liberalization and its even "greater potential." As Michael Smith, president and CEO of Hongkong & Shanghai Bank almost extravagantly put it: "I think they are the next China…"

By golly. And this November, Hanoi will be hosting the Asia Pacific Economic (APEC) Summit. Not bad for an economy which, under early Communist hegemony, had been in ruins and dirt poor, with no prospect of advancement in sight. I think it was Pham van Dong, one of the Communist leaders who tried to explain in embarrassment: "We are Revolutionaries not Economists!" Well, they’ve learned fast in the past decade.

For our part, what have we learned in the same period? We are the archipelago in which many of the original "Boat People" fleeing oppression in Vietnam had made their first landfall. Now, they’ve surpassed us by leaps and bounds.
* * *
Returning to Mr. Bush’s tribulations, the Americans have suffered far less fatalities and casualties within a similar time frame than they did in South Vietnam. Some 2,200 American soldiers and 120 British soldiers have been killed, and the death toll among Iraqis may be in the hundreds of thousands.

There are still no violent anti-war rallies in the United States, yet recent polls show that 67 percent of Americans are now opposed to the war in Iraq. A NEWSWEEK magazine poll published last week showed 31 percent of the respondents – as the editorial said "a plurality" – think the situation in Iraq is the most important issue affecting how they will vote. The same survey found that 46 percent of Americans think the Democrats would do a better job of handling Iraq than the Republicans.

In Britain, public opinion, ever since the critical remarks of Britain’s top general, Sir Richard Dannat, is running in favor of pulling out the 7,200 British troops stationed there. An ICM poll for The Guardian showed that 60 percent of Britons want their troops brought home before the end of the year.

What’s puzzling is that there are still as many American servicemen in Iraq as there were two years ago, despite the fact that the US has trained and equipped 311,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen to take over the security of the sectarian-wracked nation. Can they hand over? It appears that Iraqis don’t trust their own soldiers and cops, who have been exhibiting too much sectarian prejudice.

As for Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia himself, he’s been showing deference and partiality to one of the biggest thorns in the side of a secure Iraq, the Shiite radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Mahdi Army of aggressive militia. There are, indeed, 23 different armed militias operating in Baghdad.

How will Americans vote on Nov. 7? The outcome will be very interesting.

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