Shutdown weakens US influence
(The Philippine Star) - October 6, 2013 - 12:00am

A personal friend, the ambassador of a country close to the United States, told me the cancellation of US President Barack Obama’s entire trip to Asia including the APEC Summit in Indonesia couldn’t have come at the worst time for the global economy and security. It certainly sent the wrong signal. My diplomat friend was thoroughly convinced that the squabble in the US Congress has weakened the position of the United States at a critical time when it needs to show strength. He pointed out that what happened with Syria – where Obama made an eleventh-hour decision to seek Congress’ authorization for military force just when France was ready to strike at suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities — already placed the American leader’s certitude under doubt.

The State Department had cited “logistical concerns,” but it’s obvious the Republicans are to blame with White House Spokesman James Carney announcing that the cancellation is “another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government.” Obama is not budging an inch, saying the next president(s) could be subjected to extortion by an extremist Republican wing trying to undermine the US president’s authority to govern effectively. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the Republicans “tea party anarchists” for seeking to delay the healthcare plan known as “Obamacare” which is a major cause of the political conflict. We have to remember that Reid was the Nevada senator who almost lost his seat if not for Manny Pacquiao’s endorsement of the senator with his Filipino constituents in Las Vegas.

The shutdown is sending nervous jitters across nations struggling with their economy, with International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde warning that a debt default by the US due to a failure to raise its current debt ceiling of $17.6 trillion by October 17 could trigger a global meltdown — the worst ever the world could experience. Ironic as it may seem, even China — which sees the US as its rival for global economic and political supremacy — does not want America to default because it owns approximately $1.2 trillion worth of US bonds.

But what is extremely worrisome with the shutdown is the enormous risk it places on US national security both at home and abroad. Some 80,000 government employees had to go on “furlough” (a nice term for unemployment) which included Central Intelligence Agency personnel who were forced to take (unpaid) vacations. In fact, National Intelligence chief James Clapper had warned that financial constraints could render intelligence staff vulnerable to foreign spies out to recruit susceptible personnel. Panic and uncertainty is creeping in, seen when the US Capitol had to be placed on a lockdown for several hours after a woman rammed her vehicle on a White House security barrier and engaged in a car chase until police officers were forced to shoot her.

The political intramurals in America will definitely affect relations with countries that are very much aligned with the US particularly the Philippines. Two planned trips of Obama to Asia were cancelled in 2010. But this time, the ramifications for the US could be far more serious economically and geopolitically. For one, The US needs to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, a critical cog to American trade policy that is projected to expedite economic recovery by lowering trade barriers and increasing exports in Asia-Pacific — a region whose growing economic importance cannot be ignored.

Experts agree that the cancellation of Obama’s tour of Asia could not have come at a worse time – weakening the US position and interest in a region that is at the center of the whole US “pivot to Asia” military strategy to countermand the growing influence of China. As it is, serious questions about US commitment to focus on the region are now being raised, with many beginning to doubt the ability of the United States to advance its leadership position in the largest emerging region.  

The sad part is that the symbolism of Obama’s visit to the Philippines is very important to us at this time — especially with the increased aggressive moves of China in the West Philippine Sea. But as it is, the shutdown tells us that now more than ever, the Philippines cannot and should not be totally dependent on the United States. It is very clear that we have to bank on our own abilities and resources — now that our economy is doing very well as underscored by our recent credit rating upgrade by Moody’s to investment grade.

We have to invest in our defense system and strengthen our military capability so that when push comes to shove, we could squarely defend our territory. Heaven forbid but if tomorrow China decides to invade the Philippines, they could do so with total impunity. In fact — look at our internal security and what happened in Zamboanga where MNLF renegades turned several villages into rubble.  Even AFP Chief Emmanuel Bautista during our Rotary meeting last Thursday admitted there could have been a “failure of intelligence.” Imagine — a small band of armed men easily taking over a city and holding hostages for a long period of time?

The cancellation of the Obama visit is personally disappointing for me because our good friend, US Ambassador Harry Thomas, could have had his final crowning glory to cap his tour of duty in the Philippines — which officially ends on October 16. Apparently, the White House had extended his stay for the presidential visit. Nevertheless, I can rightfully say that Harry Thomas was one of the best, if not the best US ambassador ever to serve in this country. He really did so much more that fairly benefited both our countries.

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