A few years ago when a Filipina named Nicole lived on the front pages of all the newspapers in the Philippines and occupied the lead story in relentless television coverage about her bad night on the town, a great many people attacked the US, its motives and its military manners. Her accused abuser, a young man of low military rank and poor judgment, was tried before the court of public opinion and found guilty. A lower court also found him guilty, but evidence was not very important in that finding. Nicole was found innocent by reason of being a Filipina.
During this period of outstanding ratings for the media in the Philippines, even congressmen stepped shrilly before the microphones to decry the "unfair" treatment the Philippines had been given in the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). This is the agreement that defines how military people are to be handled between the two countries; visas, imprisonment policies, etc. Under the VFA, Filipino soldiers who break laws in the US are to be held and tried in the US. US soldiers who break the laws in the Philippines are held by the US (at its Embassy) until convicted and sentenced by Philippine courts.
Senator Santiago's cry stands vivid in my memory. "The humiliation! The humiliation!" she exclaimed, obviously feeling that the disparate clause about prisoners was an intentional insult hurled at the Philippines by arrogant officials in the US.
Fast forward to the Spratley Island tussle with China now going forward and we note there are no more headlines condemning the US, no more attention getting cries by Senator Santiago, no more marches down Roxas Boulevard by Filipinos condemning the US, not even a whisper of a demand that the VFA be re-written.
Why? Because it is patently clear that the Philippines gets more in terms of defensive aid than it gives up by some rarely used inequity in the imprisonment clause. No congressman in his right mind would today disrupt the defensive support being offered to the Philippines by the US to argue the imprisonment clause.
Now the VFA has not changed. It is still the same words as when Nicole ruled the Inquirer roost. The Philippines held the same advantages then as it has now. And if a US soldier beats the tar out of a Filipino during this week's Spratleys joint training exercise by the US and Philippine military, the US soldier will not be imprisoned in a Philippine jail.
The reason the VFA has not changed is that the US would end the defensive alliance before abandoning her soldiers to a court system that cannot be trusted to rule in law, that is too susceptible to rulings of influence over evidence.
The verification we have for this is with us today in Iraq. The US would like to leave troops in Iraq after the end of the year to continue to support Iraq, and Iraq would like to have them there. But Iraq won't accept the US demand that its troops be given immunity from prosecution. The US does not trust the Iraqi judiciary.
So the US will leave Iraq on December 31, 2011. Period.
The US stands by her principles, and one of them is not to leave a soldier behind. The soldier offers his life; the US will return the commitment. Hundreds of lives will be risked to rescue one man trapped behind enemy lines. And the US will not turn its soldiers over to a haphazard standard of justice. Even if those soldiers make a mistake. She will punish her own. As Private Smith was ultimately punished, in proportion to his misjudgment.
Now Philippine hostility toward the VFA and US was expedient at the time. It allowed the Philippines to smack at an overbearing power-monger and feel important. It was the easy way. Playing the victim card in a long-term love-hate relationship. Blaming. No one was willing to step forward to defend the Agreement for the POSITIVE benefits that squarely are granted to the Philippines under the VFA.
And it was truly a wonderful media moment. Three years worth.
I suppose this is common in mankind in general, just not the Philippines. Little manipulations to appear wise and capable. But what is starkly clear is what a mistake it would have been if emotion had gotten the better part of judgment, and if Nicole had not recanted her charge. Either the US would not stand ready to support the Philippines today, or the Philippines would have to run to the US to craft a quick agreement to counterbalance China's bullyism in the West Philippine Sea. With an imprisonment clause the US would accept.
I have discovered that this is typical of the way the Philippines operates. Transactionally. For its own advantage as the times change. Not according to an enduring principle.
There is no enduring principle that would have Philippine leaders stand proudly behind the nation's alliance with the US to bridge over a bad night on the town by TWO irresponsible drunks.
I will soon do a blog about "The Philippine Dream", for I don't know what it is. I know what the American Dream represents to all the immigrants who have flocked to her shores for 235 years. But I have no idea what guiding principles are held up by Filipinos to inspire them to grow stronger and richer. Without guiding principles, it is impossible to adhere to a consistent course through all the transactional and political winds that arise from time to time.
As for responsibility, I believe Philippine media should explicitly step forward and ask Senator Santiago what she thinks about the VFA today. Now she was not the only critic of the VFA; she was just one of the loudest and most shrill.
If she supports it, she should accept responsibility for her earlier outburst and apologize to Filipinos. She need not apologize to America; the US hears rants like hers all the time. But in seeing the VFA as a "humiliation", she refused to stand up for defense of the Philippines.
Now understand her failure. For Nicole, an irresponsible Filipina drunk out with an irresponsible American drunk, she would toss the agreement that keeps US guns behind Filipino security. She would place the entire country at risk for a headline moment.
Remember, weighty advantages to the Philippines existed in the VFA then, as they do now. And she condemned the Agreement.
Responsibility is a very important principle. She chose expediency. She chose popularity. She did not choose principle.
And if she chooses still to view the VFA as a "humiliation" today, then lots of luck to her in the next election . . .
My guess is the media will not revisit the VFA. It would be a humiliation for them, too. They would have to go back and recant their Op-Ed condemnations of the VFA.
Better to sneak about thinking no one knows about their blatant errors of judgment, two drunks over the security of the Philippines.
And my guess is Filipinos will not demand that their media or legislators step forward and accept responsibility either.
They would have to admit they were short sighted, too. This was an entire nation that could not see past the headlines, that could not see that no contract is ever exactly the same for both parties, that it is a weighing of advantages and disadvantages that make it equal for both. This was an entire nation, an emotional nation, that could not weigh its own security against two irresponsible drunks, and come down on the side of security.
It is better for an entire nation to hide out until it blows over. You know, tippy toe quietly away and hope Joe Am and loudmouths of his ilk shut up.
The moral to my story is: be true to your principles.
If you don't have principles, then, by cracky, find some.