Obama's Missed Opportunity in the Philippines

By Camille Eiss

In a 45-minute meeting last week with the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the Obama White House, President Obama appropriately acknowledged the historic, ‘special relationship' between the United States and the Philippines - the United States' oldest and closest ally in Asia. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama missed a valuable opportunity to advance the cause of democracy in the Philippines.

If today's American leadership is to effectively reassert support for democracy and human rights as a source of strength in U.S. foreign policy, greater pressure must be applied to countries precisely like the Philippines - where the leadership is tragically corrupt, democratic institutions are firmly unaccountable, and popular demand for reform is overwhelming.

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The funeral this week for former Philippines president Cory Aquino - widely revered as a treasured icon of the country's transition to democracy in 1986 - draws a stark reminder of just how far that country now stands from her vision. Her death is so significant not only for what she represents historically but also because Filipinos widely view her legacy as unfulfilled.

Since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo entered office in 2001, the Philippines has experienced a vast spike in extra-judicial and political killings, mammoth corruption scandals at the highest levels of government, the erosion of critical democratic institutions, consistent flare-ups of one of the world's last Communist insurgencies, and the persistence of a 37-year old conflict with Muslim separatists that has displaced more than 700,000 people in the last year alone.

Democracy in the Philippines under the Arroyo administration is in shambles. What's more, democracy's watchdog and enforcer - the free press and the rule of law, respectively - face consistent violent attack. The Committee to Protect Journalists identifies the Philippines as the fifth-most dangerous country for journalists in the world since it started counting journalist murders in 1992, while at least 12 Filipino judges have been murdered since 1999 without a single conviction. The noble efforts of the country's vibrant civil society and determined reformers are hamstrung by a deeply entrenched culture of impunity.

One significant accomplishment of the last eight years is the creation of the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation, which has put anti-corruption at the forefront of U.S. efforts to support democracy. But that assistance has yet to be effectively leveraged in the Philippines, where corruption pervades at every level from the local barangay to Malacanang, the presidential palace where the president herself is implicated in inflating the costs of a deal with the Chinese government by 100 million dollars.

Still, none of this is to say that the United States should abandon its long-held alliance and ‘special relationship' with the Philippines. Rather, it means we need to take advantage of it-and the significant leverage it entails-to demand more accountable leadership and institutions, and advance the protection of fundamental Filipino rights.

Two crucial areas of cooperation identified during the Obama-Arroyo meeting provide U.S. officials with key points of leverage.

First, terrorism: U.S. funding for economic development in the violence-wracked southern provinces of Mindanao is crucial to the Arroyo administration's final attempt to make any progress toward a peace deal before her term ends next spring. While U.S. security concerns regarding Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - with believed links to Southeast Asia's transnational, jihadist Jemaah Islamiyah - are new in a post-September 11th context, the Philippine government has critically relied on U.S. military assistance and training to support its own counterinsurgency efforts since the conflict's inception in 1972.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government used the "Military Assistance Program" as a key means of leverage for securing the pillars of our strategic bilateral relationship with Marcos (the U.S. military bases and parity agreements for American-owned businesses). Why not use it now to demand the conviction of military leaders responsible for unduly killing leftist party leaders? With Philippine presidential elections on the brink and yet another bid in the House of Representatives to replace the presidential system with a parliamentary one - thus allowing Arroyo to extend her stay - why not use it to ensure that she stand down?

Climate change, second among discussed priorities for the two presidents, presents another important pressure point, if not quite as readily tangible. In a Senate hearing last week on Climate Change and National Security convened by Senator Barbara Boxer - who also presided over a hearing on extra-judicial killings in the Philippines in 2007 - discussion emphasized the serious ramifications of climate change for Southeast Asia's expansive coastal populations and economies. President Arroyo clearly shares the concern and, in putting climate change on the agenda, recognizes that U.S. leadership in taking the steps necessary to prevent this long-term global security threat will be critical.

As progressives who believe that the global protection of freedom of expression, political rights, and basic civil liberties is critical to U.S. national security, we need to strategically recognize when policies implemented to assure our national security can also be utilized to advance democracy and human rights.

If Obama wants the Philippines to serve as a leader for ASEAN and "punch above its weight" in the world, it first needs to strengthen its democracy at home. In this case, the U.S.-Philippines relationship can be instrumental. We should fully embrace this opportunity to use America's power and purse strings for good.

Camille Eiss is Director of Programs for the Truman National Security Project and a Southeast Asia analyst for Freedom House.

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