Bucking the trend

Print edition : August 13, 2004
in Singapore

THE withdrawal of the small military contingent of the Philippines from Iraq has helped secure the release of a Filipino hostage, Angelo de la Cruz, from his captors in the occupied country. As a matter of diplomatic nicety and in regard to the basic humanitarian aspect at stake, the United States lost no time to describe the hostage's freedom, obtained on July 20 at the `price' of the pullout, as a "glad" tiding.

Angelo de la Cruz, after his release.-SAEED KHAN/AFP

The hostage-takers, whose identity is not really of material significance to the sordid abduction drama that lasted several days, had threatened to kill de la Cruz, a civilian, if the Filipino soldiers were not withdrawn by an extended deadline. In the event, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the soldiers out of Iraq. The move, first indicated to circles considered close to de la Cruz's captors, was made in the larger interests of the safety of several million Filipino civilians who work in West Asia and other places.

However, Washington could hardly conceal its "disappointment" over Manila's action of breaking ranks with the so-called coalition of the willing in the ongoing "war on terrorism" in Iraq. Viewed from a Filipino perspective, it was in fact a case of controlled anger in Washington. Obviously, the view from Washington was different.

The simple but significant reality is that the Philippines, designated not long ago as a "major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] ally" of the U.S., has disregarded the "dos and don'ts" of the "anti-terror campaign" as outlined by Washington from time to time. It was during an extensive tour of East Asia in October 2003 that U.S. President George W. Bush designated the Philippines and Thailand as "major non-NATO allies". The specific reference to NATO, in this context, was designed to downplay speculation that he was actually out to create an Asiatic version of NATO.

More relevant to the latest geopolitical situation in East Asia is that Manila is in a minority of one among the U.S.-friendly countries in the region to have bucked the `trend' of siding with Washington in Iraq in the present circumstances.

The Philippines has not, of course, walked out of the U.S.-led coalition in the worldwide "war on terrorism". The U.S., too, is still actively engaged in putting the Philippines through its paces in the battle against sundry terrorists in its own backyard. The real issue in focus, though, is not whether this is Washington's pompous `take' or Manila's grateful view.

Of considerable concern to Washington is the possibility that Manila's decisive pullout may well impinge on the people's mood in East Asia in general and pose a diplomatic challenge to the U.S. itself. There is more to this than the small number of soldiers that the Philippines had stationed in Iraq - 51 soldiers, on purely "humanitarian" duties - as distinct from a "combat-ready" assignment.

The governments in Japan and South Korea, both long-time military "allies" of the U.S., continue to fly against the currents of public opinion in their respective domains in order to keep their troops in Iraq at this time. Units belonging to Japan's Self-Defence Forces remain on a "reconstruction mission" in Iraq, a job description similar to that of the Filipino troops, while South Korea has plans to augment its "non-combat personnel" in Iraq by sending more of them in addition to "battle-ready" soldiers. Seoul's contingent will, eventually, be the third largest foreign force in Iraq, behind those from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The task before an increasingly beleaguered U.S. is to ensure that Tokyo and Seoul, which now cite their compulsions of realpolitik to side with Washington, will stay that course. Two of Japan's diplomats and one South Korean civilian have already fallen victim to terrorist activities in Iraq.

For Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in contrast, considerations of realpolitik of a different kind have come into prime reckoning. To her way of thinking, a symbolic sense of military solidarity with the U.S. in Iraq had become a liability, which could even put at risk the very lives of Filipino expatriates across the world, especially in West Asia.

Not surprisingly, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo not only celebrated the safe release of de la Cruz, but maintained that she would not regret her decision to withdraw the troops. In her view, it was in the final analysis her responsibility to ensure the security of Filipinos, wherever they might be resident. In a sense, this carried an elemental echo of Washington's own assertions about its obligations to protect Americans around the world.

In Washington's official jargon, the latest Filipino move might just be one aspect of what is essentially a "rotational coalition" in Iraq. Whether this means a revolving door for the coalition or not, the question is whether the "offensive realists" in the U.S. will accept Manila's action as an independent move or see it as defiance. As seen in East Asia, this "offensive realism", drawn from the descriptive terminology of John J. Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), may now re-assert itself in Washington. Will the latest Manila move be seen as a new manifestation, even if on a smaller scale, of the Filipino mindset that forced the closure of U.S. bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s?

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