Manila and Washington: never so bad
As a sometime high-level player in Washington’s foreign policy establishment, and now a happy permanent resident of the Philippines, I would like to comment on how we saw Manila—from the White House, the state department, and also the defense department.
It’s true that a superpower inherently sees a middle power differently from how it sees another big player, like Russia or Germany. The Philippines is, however, in a far more advantaged position than, say, Argentina or Indonesia. This is proved by the high level of diplomats who have come to Manila, from our most famous of the 20th century, Charles Bohlen, to John Negroponte, who subsequently held cabinet positions in Washington and the United Nations.
It’s also true that we always felt a bit of guilt, for our colonial past here sullies our self-view as a noncolonial power. This invariably worked to Manila’s advantage. It’s also true that the other colonial powers in granting independence in Asia and Africa did so from a position of weakness, following World War II. We emerged richer and stronger. We represented a rising sun, theirs was setting. That widened the gap between Manila and Washington, but not by much; there were just too many personal, institutional and military links.
It’s simple mythology to say we ever thought of our Filipino counterparts as little brown brothers. We saw and continue to see the Philippines as a substantial player in a critical geographic position. It is true that at the time of Edsa 1986, President Ronald Reagan, for whom I worked, and his influential wife Nancy had a peculiarly sentimental view of the Marcos couple. Even a president as distant from policy levers could be influenced in a government like America’s. Personal friendships worked, too. Ferdinand Marcos’ one-time reformist executive secretary, Alejandro Melchor, was actually in the Executive Office Building helping us man the cables. At the denouement, most of us involved gathered at the CIA, and we watched and cheered as an American Huey lifted the once-imperial couple off from Malacañang.
I invited the legendary Edward Lansdale to lecture at the Fletcher School. The first question was: Had he really slapped President Ramon Magsaysay, then secretary of national defense, into action, in the early 1950s? He flatly denied it, but affirmed that when Secretary Magsaysay seemed frozen, Hamlet-like, in indecision, he raised him up from his desk and shook him. It was time for action. They were close friends, after all.
Now since the high-level days of Fidel V. Ramos, relations have been variable. But even the ambassador during President Joseph Estrada’s brief period affirms good professional working relations with Erap. Relations during Gloria Arroyo’s checkered presidency moved up and down.
The Philippines has never been an American lapdog. Perhaps we didn’t, in the early days, affirm how important the archipelago was bound to be to us as time went on. In any event, with many Filipinos averring a good opinion of America—well, there are 4.8 million Fil-Ams, after all—and a deep infrastructure of military ties, it might take more than speeches in China to break all military ties. But if the Philippine government officially requests all US military to leave, I know exactly what will happen. President Barack Obama will issue relevant orders for compliance. So will the new US president after Jan. 21.
In 2003, my Filipino partner and I enjoyed a luncheon with former president Bill Clinton at Rhodes House, Oxford. Clinton spent most of the time with wonderful stories of his good ties with FVR and high respect for many other famous Filipinos. That’s a rich heritage on both sides. It would be a shame for it to go down the drain. But it doesn’t erase all the excellent things that have happened up till now.
W. Scott Thompson is a four-time presidential appointee in Washington, and professor emeritus at The Fletcher School. He wrote this with the assistance of Oliver Geronilla, a language instructor based in Dasmariñas City.
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