The US State Department — ugly Americans?

The US State Department — ugly Americans? Featured

I HAD the privilege of an audience with the president-elect in Davao City for a courtesy call scheduled at 2:30 a.m. Yes indeed, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD) holds strange hours. I was accompanying a mutual friend, an American philanthropist whom he had invited long before his election. After the customary amenities, the conversation turned to a topic that intermittently crops up like a broken record and soured his attitude toward the United States government. I wrote on Dec. 29, 2016 in my Manila Times column:

“A point at issue then was the ‘Meiring matter’ that irritated the President, generating some sort of the lingering mistrust for the American government, reflected in his lukewarm attitude toward the outgoing US Ambassador Goldberg.

“Apparently, this was a case of an American who came in and out of Davao for years carrying explosives for unknown purposes. The hotel he stayed in burned down after an explosion in his room. He was hospitalised, but was whisked out of the country the next day, purportedly by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in a private jet to Singapore and subsequently to the United States. Richard Ricciardone, the US ambassador at the time, never did come up with a clear-cut explanation nor an apology. To President Duterte, this was merely one of the instances of America’s impertinent attitude toward the Philippines and its laws.

“The Deegong (President Duterte) since then has had a strong aversion for US ambassadors, regarding them as the proverbial ‘ugly Americans.’

Genesis of DU30’S US opprobrium

“Our second engagement with then President-elect Deegong was in June 24 [2016], when a group of around 40 US-based business executives, local industrialists, and former US and current Philippine diplomats flew to Davao from Washington D.C. and Manila in four private planes… We brought them to the ‘Malacañang South’…where the President was our gracious host. They flew back home that evening impressed with the President-elect and started mulling over plans for investments in the agricultural sector and power, especially in Mindanao.

“Then came a series of American, European and United Nations faux-pas on perceived human rights violations and the so called ‘EJK’ (extrajudicial killing), culminating in the US President’s [expression of] public concern and chastisement, and subsequent retaliation by President Deegong and his famous ‘p****g i*a’ reportedly directed at the US lame-duck President [Barack Obama]. Things went downhill from then on.”

In a microcosm, these two incidents depict what ails our relations with America today. PRRD’s unilateral decision to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement could be his vernacular version of a personal “resbak” (revenge) for these slights. From his standpoint as an uncomplicated linear thinker, this mitigates the damage to the Filipino collective pride over the decades while paradoxically in a “special relations.” In a litany of misdeeds, one strikes at the core of the populist president’s grasp of this bilateral relationship. I wrote:

Little brown brothers

“At this point, a cursory review of the relationship with America needed to be examined and understood from the point of view of the President. In his monologue over the months as president, he has given hints as to his feelings about the ‘big brother.’ Admittedly, our close relationships with America reached its apex when we fought side by side during the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died on Philippine soil defending America’s concept of freedom and democracy. But, shortly after the war and the succeeding years, the relationship has reached its nadir when the Filipino soldiers, who fought beside his American comrades, were soon subjected to some of the most humiliating experiences by having to prove to America their courageous participation in countless battlefields — before they could receive some sort of ‘veteran’s compensation’; while their American counterparts never had a problem receiving their entitlements. Horror stories abound with old and ailing veterans ‘begging’ for pittance even decades after the war.

“Contrast this with the way America treated its World War 2 enemies. Japan, under the Philippines’ ‘adopted’ [son], Gen. Douglas McArthur had more American treasures thrown at it in their post-war rebuilding. Germany is now the leading European economy and the fourth or fifth in the world, having been rebuilt immediately after the war with the Marshall Plan. The Philippines’ post-war reconstruction was in no way comparable to those whom we fought against — the Axis powers.

“As the closest of America’s allies and men-at arms, what did we get in return for keeping the ‘fires of democracy’ alive and help to keep America’s presence in Asia? …We did not get our own Marshall Plan.”

Nurturing a relationship

At this critical juncture we don’t even have a US ambassador to interpret this maverick of a president to US political institutions. Similarly, in 2016, at the start of PRRD’s administration, the US State Department was so irresponsible as to neglect assigning a US ambassador after Philip Goldberg was replaced. And his replacement, Ambassador Sung Kim didn’t appear in Manila until the end of 2016.

Petty things like the cancellation of the US visa of PRRD’s favorite senator may be the trigger, but this is merely the culmination of a series of aggravations and insults over time. A good US ambassador, knowledgeable of the Filipino psyche, should understand Duterte’s way of conducting diplomacy and could have averted all these complications. The absence of America’s man on the ground, as all other blunders, simply signals — in the dialect — “Binabalewala lang tayo (We are being taken for granted).” In retrospect, it is not even so much the absence of America’s representative, but the quality of one. The US needs to send someone who internalizes the sensitive element that the Philippines was the big brother’s first tentative stab at colonization in Asia, resulting in the shaping of this “special relations.” But the US State Department has been sending US ambassadors without previous Philippine experience and without deep knowledge of our country. Also, the State Department needs to send an ambassador with strong ties to Trump (who professed to like the Deegong immensely) and solid links with members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations committee, Philippine senators and congressmen, and the Washington foreign policy think tank community.

But rumor has it that the US State Department wants to send the Philippines another ambassador totally inexperienced in Philippine affairs; and that our Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has agreed to this presumably without the knowledge of the Deegong or the rest of the Cabinet, or even our ambassador in Washington.

We should all be mindful of the near-debacle last year, when the term of Ambassador Kim was ending and social media was inundated with a photo of a comely Asian-American, purported to be the next US ambassador to the Philippines. She was presented at the Philippine Independence Day celebration at the Philippine Embassy in Washington with a senior State Department official, Brian Bulatao, escorting her. Turned out the 32-year-old Ms. Mina Chang had false credentials; subsequently, she had to resign from the State Department.

This continuing saga of incompetence by the US State Department does not augur well for the special relationship, which both sides need to continually nurture — not with the Philippines right smack in the front door of America’s last remaining worthy global competitor, China!

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Read 260 times Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 14:42
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