The Philippines under Pox Amerikana
THE war in Iraq is over. Everything those of us who opposed the war said would happen has indeed happened. The Americans have not yet found those justificatory ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Iraqi’s are not yet happy with their ‘liberation’. The cost of that ‘liberation’ in Iraqi lives and, not incidentally, American lives, continue to mount.
Iraq has become the first full-fledged American colony of the 21st century. They do not even pretend to rule through Iraqi puppets. They have direct control over Iraqi oil. Those Security Council members who opposed the war have meekly provided UN ‘legal’ justification for the American fait accompli.
Many of us who opposed the war went through bouts of pessimism in the aftermath of the war. We mobilized millions but failed to stop the war. George Bush Jr. was willing to sacrifice the UN and his European allies. The war seemed to confirm the invincibility of American military technology. American casualties were kept low enough to keep Bush’s domestic political costs low. The majority of the American people supported Bush’s war. American triumphalism seemed to have enough basis in reality to presage a long century under Pox Amerikana.
Iraq was, pure and simple, about American bully rights. It is George Bush Junior’s America sending a clear message to the world: ‘We have the military power to attack anyone, anytime, any place that we choose. If, for whatever reason we find an individual, a government, or a whole country a threat to our economic and political interests, we will attack them. We do not recognize limits to our power from the United Nations, or from any other international organization, agreement or treaty.’ The American code for the war was ‘shock and awe’. The Iraqis got the ‘shock’. We are all supposed to be in ‘awe’ of American military power.
Saddam’s Iraq has the singular misfortune of being a ‘target of convenience’ for Junior and his cabal of war freaks. It is a small, militarily weak country, with no strong nearby ally. It was bled economically and militarily for more than a decade, since the Gulf War in 1991. The US and the UK bombed the so-called no fly zone in the North of Iraq during all that time. The US openly helped anti-Saddam Iraqis. Iraq was picked because it is militarily and politically vulnerable. Junior’s rationale for war – the military threat of Saddam – is pure unadulterated nonsense. Iraq was attacked not because it is strong, but because it is weak.
What makes the American war in Iraq pivotal is that Junior and his cabal of war freaks are challenging the whole post WWII superstructure of organizations, treaties and other agreements. The international order in the past 50 years was anchored on bipolarity, on MAD (mutually assured destruction) between the US and the USSR. American military intervention in countries in the South was limited by the threat of a Soviet response. For the US, the United Nations and other multilateral arenas provided political venues for isolating the USSR and the other socialist countries. Then the USSR and the European ‘socialist bloc’ collapsed.
Bush Senior was president too close to the USSR collapse to use it fully or even to realize what his ‘New World Order’ really meant. Clinton was preoccupied with the US economy. It is Junior and his cabal of war freaks who are determined to take advantage of the fact that the US is now the only military superpower left. As Jay Bookman, an editor of the prestigious American newspaper put it: ‘This war… is intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan 10 years or more in the making, carried out by those who believe the United States must seize the opportunity for global domination, even if it means becoming the "American imperialists" that our enemies always claimed we were’ (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 29/9/02).
Junior’s plans are in the National Security Strategy document released on 20 September 2002. This is a document which lays out in stark, arrogant detail the US’ military strategy and its political rationale. It dismisses deterrence, containment and other strategic perspectives as Cold War relics. It unashamedly adopts ‘unilateralism’ as an approach – ‘convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities’. It speaks in blunt terms of what it calls ‘American internationalism’ – ignoring international opinion if that suits US interests. It asserts an American right to ‘pre-emptive attack’ against its perceived enemies, whether individuals or governments.
To insure unchallenged US military domination of all regions of the world, the report advocates a much larger military presence in addition to the roughly 130 nations in which US troops are already deployed. ‘The United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia,’ the document warns, ‘as well as temporary access arrangements for the long distance deployment of US troops.’ More specifically, the report argues that the US needs permanent military bases in the Middle East, in Southeast Europe, in Latin America and in Southeast Asia, where no such bases now exist.
This is where the Philippines comes in. Junior and his cabal believe that China is the main potential strategic threat to US hegemony. In the aftermath of the Afghanistan war, US military bases have been established in Afghanistan and in former Soviet states bordering the Chinese Northwest. The Americans have bases in Okinawa and South Korea to China’s East. The only remaining area left to surround China is to its South, in Southeast Asia. None of the other Southeast Asian countries will allow US military bases. That leaves the Philippines. The US already has temporary access arrangements (VFA and ACSA) with the Philippines, but it clearly wants to re-establish more permanent basing arrangements.
Soon after the war in Afghanistan, the US declared that Southeast Asia is the ‘second front’ in its ‘war against terrorism’. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. The Jemaah Islamiyah, which has orchestrated a number of bombings in the region, is Indonesia bred. Malaysia’s majority population is also Muslim. Governments in both countries are also concerned about terrorism, but neither government is willing to subsume their anti-terrorism activities under American leadership. It is only the government of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, with its minority Muslim population, which is willing to provide the US with the political and military platform for its Southeast Asian war against terrorism.
The Arroyo government’s stance towards the Iraq war has been downright disgusting. She supported every move of Bush, every statement. Arroyo claimed a victory in Iraq even before the Americans, as if she had anything to do with the war other than being a minor pom pom girl cheering from the bleachers. Even before the war was over, the Philippine vulture already flew overhead looking for dead bodies to pick clean. The Philippines, Arroyo said, will send a ‘humanitarian’ contingent of 500 soon. Various members of the government greedily said the Philippines will be in a good position to provide cheap, skilled labour for the reconstruction of Iraq. Never mind that they will have to step over the dead bodies of Iraqis killed by the Americans.
But the Arroyo government’s opportunistic dance around a pile of dead Iraqi bodies is only puke inducing shameful. What is scary is the renewal of the Arroyo-Bush dance of military seduction. In February, The New York Times and the Washington Post carried stories from an unnamed Pentagon source that the US would soon go into combat in Sulu against the Abu Sayyaf, a small criminal gang with a thin patina of Islamic fundamentalism. A week later, the military attacked Pikit, in Cotabato province, a community where the leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) resided. The unprovoked attack broke an official ceasefire with the MILF, an armed Islamic rebel group. Analysts connected the two events as preparation for bringing the US into combat in the Philippine South where an armed rebellion has been simmering for over three decades.
An intense campaign by peace groups, quietly assisted by members of Arroyo’s cabinet, forced the government to backtrack on what was likely agreed on between the US and Philippine militaries. A little over a month later, after the end of the war in Iraq, Arroyo turned around and said the Americans will go to Sulu after all as ‘advisers’, not as combatants. Worse, training exercises will be held in both Sulu and Cotabato, precisely the two areas where it will provoke the kind of Islamic reaction which will be used to justify an American combat role.
Arroyo also went backward and forward on peace negotiations with the MILF. After the attack on Pikit, ‘doves’ in the Arroyo cabinet succeeded in pushing informal talks with a MILF panel in Kuala Lumpur. Then, a week before she went on a state visit to the US in May, she ordered air and artillery attacks on so-called MILF communities as if to garb herself in anti-terrorist warrior robes before presenting herself before Emperor Bush. Apart from generating thousands more refugees, the attacks only provoked more MILF military actions in other parts of Mindanao.
But in Washington, Arroyo once again shifted gears. Perhaps because the Americans, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, had shifted to support negotiations in Palestine, Bush offered millions in development assistance if the MILF and Philippine government achieved a political settlement. While Arroyo was in Washington, several Filipino politicians called on the US to play mediator in government – MILF peace talks. Just in case, Bush also offered even more money for the modernization of the Philippine military. Arroyo was all smiles as Bush pulled all the stops to fete an honoured member of the ‘coalition of the willing’.
It remains to be seen whether peace talks with the MILF will succeed. The MILF has leaned over backward to show its willingness to reach agreement with the government. It has even agreed to American mediation. It is the Arroyo government that is imposing all kinds of arrogant preconditions. Arroyo herself seems unable to control the military which is not convinced that it is incapable of defeating the MILF militarily. For now, the Americans are apparently supportive of peace talks, but in the long run American plans for a long term military presence in the Philippines will distort the conditions for resolving armed conflict in the Philippines.
The Americans are hot on the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF because there is intelligence information of their links with the al Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah. I would not even dignify the Abu Sayyaf with the term ‘terrorist’; they are just a band of cutthroat bandits. But the MILF has a strong social base in the 10 million strong Muslim South. They carry the banner of centuries of Filipino Muslim resistance against Spanish and American colonialism and what they call ‘Manila imperialism’. By themselves, the Philippine military’s capacity for mayhem is circumscribed by poor equipment and training and general incompetence. Americans anxious to create opportunities for combat for themselves and their Filipino wards will light the sputtering fuse of war in Mindanao.
Since the Americans prefer to fight with planes and helicopters and tanks which are not as accurate as they claim, there will be many civilian casualties, and even more refugees. There are more refugees in Central Mindanao than Iraq. Since they will be fighting an irregular ‘enemy’, they will carry out ‘counter-insurgency’ which will mean arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances – all those things that we have gladly forgotten from our martial law experience. Since the government will not have martial law powers, it is rushing the ‘anti-terrorism’ bills through the legislature. We will have a more and more uncontrollable military aping American arrogance.
Without strong resistance, we will again have American bases in the country. This will mean a lot more than a return of the sex trade for American servicemen, or American guards killing Filipino scavengers. A permanent American military presence will mean greater American incentive to intervene in our politics. We will return to the days when Americans ran campaigns for presidential candidates. Since the Americans want a ‘forward presence’ mainly against China, it will mean our automatically becoming the enemy of the giant to our North. Since it is unlikely that our neighbours will take the American side, it will also mean our gradual diplomatic isolation in Southeast Asia.
In the emotional backwash of Iraq, many of us and many more on the nationalist Right felt that the Americans are invincible. If Bush cannot be stopped… those on the Right queued up on the cooptation line; some on the Left retreated to their narrow little concerns. As reality gradually reappeared after the CNN flash of American bombs in Baghdad, the outlines of both an analysis and tactical and strategic perspectives began to appear. It helped, of course, that reality also appeared for the US in the afterglow of triumphalist euphoria.
It is clear that no government without deliverable nuclear capability can stand up militarily to the US. This is precisely the reason why Bush is bullying both Iran and North Korea. American military technological superiority is more than enough to easily defeat non-nuclear standing armies such as that of Saddam. What Bush and his ‘chicken hawks’ do not yet understand is that an occupying power has to operate under conditions where there is a levelling off of technological differences.
Plane to plane or warship to warship very few countries can stand up to the US. But American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot always hide in tanks; they have to ride Humvees and walk. When they do they are vulnerable to handguns and RPGs. In Afghanistan, local warlords are instruments of control for the American occupation even if they are wrecking havoc politically. In Iraq, the Americans are discovering what the Israelis have known for years. Being an occupying power in the midst of a hostile population is costly in terms of casualties and military and civilian morale. Even at the rate of 10 American soldiers killed per month, this will sap the American political will.
Bush neo-conservatism has a kind of perverse logic even if looks more like that of a neighbourhood bully in a street fight than statecraft. Sustaining American over consumption requires a lot of power in the world. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are no military obstacles to American hegemony. Under these circumstances, Bush says, forget diplomacy, throw your weight around. Bush’s problem is that worldwide political and economic hegemony, even one clearly standing on military power, requires more ideological infrastructure than a street fight. He cannot just sweep aside long held neoliberal, globalist ideas. He has also had to take on clearly unpopular Christian Right ideas such as premarital virginity.
Bush is politically vulnerable domestically. Lack of control and mounting casualties in Iraq will erode the ‘victorious warrior’ image. The economy remains in the doldrums. The Bush policy is increasingly being perceived for what it is, a big dole out programme for the rich. If the Democrats can break out of their intimidation from post September 11 American jingoism and target Bush’s attacks on cherished American democratic values… If the Democratic Party leadership can go past the post-Florida ‘we were cheated’ funk and unite behind a solid presidential candidate, Bush can be defeated in the November 2004 election.
The millions who marched may not have succeeded in stopping the war in Iraq, but the potential base for progressive work generated by the anti-Iraq war movement is massive. The presence of large numbers of young people in these mobilizations, and the gradual marriage of the anti-globalization and peace movements have all of the elements of 1968 revisited. This potential is greatest in the North where the mobilizations were largest. But in the medium term the potential is greater in the South where American interventions will be felt more directly and the political contradictions generated by these interventions offer more opportunities for the Left to split ruling groups.
The Philippines offers a good case study of the potential for progressive work on peace issues. In a message to the peace movement soon after the end of the Iraq war, I said: ‘In the last few months, it has become clear that our peace movement has the capacity for independence, initiative and great imagination in devising new organizational forms. We should not be embarrassed that we have not been able to mobilize the hundreds of thousands that peace movements in other countries have achieved. Each country has political and cultural particularities that determine the size of mass mobilizations. Much can be achieved through smaller mobilizations with imaginative forms and pinpointing political targets.’ We managed to stop American plans for a combat role in the South without large mobilizations, mainly through careful work right within the heart of the Arroyo government, her cabinet.
The organizational infrastructure for an Asia-wide peace movement already exists not just because the Asian Peace Alliance (APA) already exists but because multiple networks on almost any area of civil society concern one can think of provide a thick, nurturing ‘soup’ for the peace movement to grow in. Political conditions in the entire region are also conducive to peace work. Lingering nationalist sentiment, a determined refusal to allow the US to dictate how governments relate to Muslim communities in the name of anti-terrorism, or to get dragooned into an anti-China strategic alliance characterize not just progressive thinking but also that of large chunks of the political class.
George Bush beware. The last military defeat the US suffered was in Southeast Asia.