‘We have met the enemy and he is us’
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(First published in the Philippine Star issue of March 13, 2013)
I don’t remember offhand who actually said that or if it is just a paraphrase of what was actually said. It is however something we Pinoys can say today with almost perfect accuracy.
Having lived here all six decades of my life, I am aware of our self destructive tendencies. That national characteristic was in full bloom over the past two weeks.
I initially blamed the political season. Every politician, specially those in danger of losing their senatorial bid, can be expected to make mindless and normally ill-advised statements about the Sabah situation. Then there is the usual coterie of confirmed P-Noy haters who think he can do nothing right and therefore take every opportunity to bash him.
Things are however starting to get out of hand. The Sabah situation is a major foreign affairs problem that requires delicate diplomacy. And as we should have learned from our recent experience with China, diplomacy cannot be conducted by writing press releases for mass media and impossible to do through status updates in Facebook or Twitter.
I am amazed at how venomous the commentary on the Sabah situation had become. Many people have been foaming in the mouth in denouncing P-Noy, who happens to be the country’s principal diplomatic official. I am afraid that by demonizing P-Noy in a way that makes him look stupid, negligent or even seem like a traitor reduces his international credibility and his ability to protect the national interest.
This is why in the United States, the Democrats and the Republicans may hate each other but when it comes to matters of foreign affairs, they talk with one voice. When POTUS speaks on behalf of the US government before a foreign government, the opposition does not publicly repudiate him. They have enough opportunity to voice and vote their conviction anyway when a treaty is presented to the Senate for ratification.
The way many of us behaved the past two weeks is downright shameful. Many allowed emotions to get the better of them. They failed to give the President the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, they have to acknowledge that the President is the one person who has the best overall view of the situation and has the responsibility to decide not just for one Filipino’s interest but for the entire nation’s.
For starters, no matter what ownership rights the Sulu Sultan may have over Sabah, he had no right to take things in his own hands. He cannot blackmail the entire nation into going to war with Malaysia as a fait accompli to support his family’s land claim.
Because what the Sultan did involved a foreign government, he usurped the exclusive right of the President to conduct the nation’s foreign policy. Of course Malacañang will not take this usurpation sitting down as it shouldn’t.
Malacañang should view that “Sabah invasion” of the Kirams in the context of our national interest. And that national interest must take into account the welfare of about a million Filipinos living in Sabah, mostly illegally; the safety and the jobs of about 100,000 OFWs earning a living in Malaysia and the implications to our relations with Malaysia particularly in the light of the ongoing MILF peace talks.
I don’t know if the hotheads castigating P-Noy actually expected him to declare war on Malaysia or get Congress to do that in defense of the property rights of the Kirams. To be effective, P-Noy had to make sure he did not antagonize the Malaysian government in the process of presenting our point of view.
I am sure things were going on in the background because this is what diplomacy is all about. The success of such diplomatic efforts can be limited by inflammatory public statements specially from politicians who should know better.
Having said all that, I am also conscious of our right as citizens of this Republic to voice our opinions on matters of national concern. Our officials, after all, are exercising powers we delegated to them and they have to know how we feel.
We can for instance, demand an explanation from P-Noy why no one in his administration knew that the Sultan was planning a Sabah invasion on his own. This is a clear failure of intelligence. Because of the problems in our Southern backdoor, one would expect that our intelligence people are even more alert on goings on there.
If the Sultan’s “Royal Army” can leave the Philippines and land in Sabah undetected, we can assume that al-Qaeda related terrorists can enter Philippine territory just as easily. There is no excuse for failure of intelligence specially because we allocate billions of pesos in intelligence funds that are exempted from audit.
This failure of intelligence justifies suspicion that intelligence funds are being used for matters other than intelligence. Or maybe we have incompetent intelligence people… or both. Maybe too, P-Noy should retire his National Security Adviser who may be well past his prime and get someone more up to the challenge of the job.
P-Noy should also not ignore the failure of the Department of Foreign Affairs in this matter. The apology over the mishandling of the letter of Sultan Kiram is not nearly enough because this is the second hot issue DFA has mishandled during P-Noy’s watch.
Maybe too, it is time to retire the Foreign Secretary. I have no doubt that he is well meaning and may even be competent in some aspects of our foreign policy challenges. What China, and now Sabah, has revealed is that we need a foreign secretary who is better versed and better experienced in dealing with our neighbors than one whose only claim for the job is that he has influential friends in Washington DC.
Since age doesn’t seem to be a problem for P-Noy, perhaps it is time to tap a veteran diplomat like Rodolfo Severino whose expertise and career was spent dealing with Asean countries. Rod also spent time in the US as a diplomat.
An expert on the law of the seas, Rod has written a book on it. He is also just the right man to help us deal with China on our Panatag and Spratly problems.
Diplomacy does not only require an intimate knowledge of the issues which Rod has. It also requires years of actual dealings and trust built with counterparts in the region through personal relationships (may pinagsamahan) which Rod has chalked up in his diplomatic career capped by service as Secretary General of Asean.
I applaud Sec. Del Rosario’s gung-ho spirit in flying out to crisis regions of the world to protect our OFWs in war-torn Libya, Syria and elsewhere. But as we are seeing now, the OFW part of DFA’s current mandate is the easy part. Good old fashioned diplomacy is still the main responsibility of DFA and that can be best exercised by an experienced diplomat like Rod and not by an accidental one like Mr. del Rosario.
I expect the conduct of foreign affairs will be a continuing tough spot for P-Noy unless he gets the right people in place. Even as he is ultimately responsible for the conduct of foreign relations, P-Noy needs the help of really good foreign policy experts to get the job done. He doesn’t seem to have the benefit of sound advice.
China… and then Sabah… I don’t know what more proof P-Noy needs to accept the fact that something is not right at DFA. And just to cap the problems there… I guess we can’t expect much from a bureaucracy that can’t even give a citizen his passport within a week or less.
It now takes a month to get an appointment date to file an application and another three weeks to actually get delivery of a passport. A prospective OFW can lose a job offer while waiting for a passport to be issued.
For a country that survives because of OFWs, it is sad they can’t handle something as basic as prompt issuance of passports. With that in mind, I guess expecting them to handle something as complex as China and Sabah is probably asking too much.
In the meantime, it would be best to hold the vicious attacks on P-Noy on Sabah. The Malaysians are probably laughing at how we are trashing the international reputation of our own President, impairing his ability to negotiate.
If we can’t respect our President enough to represent us abroad, why should the Malaysians even care what he says? They can ignore P-Noy’s protests over the barbaric treatment of our people in Sabah because some of us are giving the impression he isn’t to be taken seriously. We are indeed our own worse enemy.
Speaking of passports, I recall someone saying that if people actually looked like what they look like in their passport photos very few countries will let them in.