Helping hand

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

After the deaths of 13 Marines last Friday in Marawi, there now seems to be general agreement that the Islamic State threat in Mindanao is real.

In fact the Duterte administration, until recently slammed for creating an Islamic State scare to declare martial law in Mindanao, is now being criticized for underestimating the IS threat. Tough guy Rodrigo Duterte is being chided by the foreign media for the intelligence failure that made the Marawi siege possible, and for proving to be no match for the IS-inspired Mautes and Abu Sayyaf.

Worse for tough-talking President Duterte, his defense and military officials turned for help – without his knowledge, he has stressed – to (horrors!) Uncle Sam. But Du30 can be pragmatic, especially when it comes to taking care of the troops. The Armed Forces of the Philippines, he acknowledged, is very pro-American, with many of its officer corps receiving various types of training in the US.

In fact Du30 will one day also have to acknowledge that the Philippines remains one of the most pro-American countries. No amount of his profanity-laced perorations against the US, and not even the antics of President Donald Trump will change this Pinoy mindset any time soon.

Even when Washington slips, as when George W. Bush ordered an attack on Iraq based on faulty intel on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, an international survey showed that the Philippines was one of only a handful of countries where public perceptions of Uncle Sam remained exceptionally high.

Du30 may order his officials to pivot to China and Russia, away from Washington, but they won’t find too many Pinoys going along with them. Apart from the absence of a language barrier with the US, Pinoys share with America common aspirations and values, which constitute the solid foundations for a nation’s ties with the world. Millions of Pinoys have relatives in the United States and, as pointed out by Du30, underwent schooling or training there or joined an exchange program.

He, on the other hand, didn’t get invited to any exchange program and, if the diplomatic grapevine is correct, was even denied a US visa over human rights issues during a special moment in his life. Now he’s having his revenge. But one man alone isn’t going to break the Philippines’ sturdy links with America.

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Especially when America is the only country that is providing military assistance in the difficult mission of crushing the IS-Maute threat. The military aid may involve mainly technical support and the provision of weaponry including missiles, which is really all that the US can do; the Constitution prohibits the deployment of foreign troops for combat in the Philippines. Still, the aid is invaluable. The military is running low on precision-guided missiles, and the unmanned US drones provide precious live intel on the terrorists in Marawi without endangering the lives of more AFP and Philippine National Police forces.

So even if he didn’t ask for US help, Duterte said he welcomed it. His forces asked America for something their commander-in-chief couldn’t provide, and they got what they wanted.

Despite the US help, Duterte isn’t likely to change his stance about weaning the country from dependence on Uncle Sam. This is in fact a sound foreign policy for any self-respecting sovereign state. But bilateral ties have warmed since his days of calling the US president an SOB for criticizing his drug war and wanting to lecture him on human rights.

The State Department also appears to have learned a valuable lesson in dealing with this leader of a former US colony. Today the concerns on human rights abuses are being coursed through diplomatic channels, while in public, Washington is expressing and providing support for the war on drugs.

With the siege of Marawi, Duterte has even succeeded in linking the drug menace to the IS threat. You can see certain foreign capitals revisiting their assessments of Du30’s dirty war on drugs.

The police buzz is that Ominta Romato “Farhana” Maute, dubbed “Mama Maute” – mother of the brothers Omar and Abdullah who founded the terrorist group – accumulated impressive assets and raised enormous funds for the terrorist group partly through drug trafficking.

If security officers can conclusively link IS to drugs, Duterte can be assured of support for his drug war even from certain governments that have raised concern over human rights violations in the conduct of his campaign. There will be more readiness to swallow the argument that you can’t play nice in this war.

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Neither can you play nice in dealing with IS. Rodrigo Duterte could become the favorite strongman of every government whose people have suffered from IS violence and continue to be threatened by the jihadis.

Modern civilization prohibits these states from resorting to certain methods to deal with extremist threats. Duterte, on the other hand, has no such compunctions. Public safety first, his principal defense in his take-no-prisoners approach, is resonating sufficiently to mute opposition to his declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao.

Those old enough to remember are warning that Ferdinand Marcos also successfully used the communist threat to justify the declaration of martial law nationwide in 1972. Marcos also used the communist threat to rule like a dictator with US support until 1986, when people power compelled Washington to drop its favorite SOB like a hot potato.

Defenders of Duterte’s Proclamation 216 counter that the Constitution has enough safeguards to prevent a repeat of Marcos’ brand of martial law and a return of authoritarian rule.

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on the validity of Proclamation 216. Accepting the premise for Duterte’s martial law will formally seal the reality of the IS threat in the country.

Dealing with the threat will require all the help that the country can get.

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