The main problem is not malice but ignorance
Erratic and disjointed presidential sound bites now rule the nation, so we need to be more deliberate and discriminating. The mass media, in particular, have a special duty to first understand what President Rodrigo Duterte is saying before quoting him. They must understand not only the meaning and context of his words but also the logic and validity of his assertions. Radio and television, when broadcasting his talks live, should always put everything in context after airing his statement.
This is especially necessary, in the area of foreign affairs, which seems foreign to most everyone. The media should help prevent confusion, and save the President from needless criticism. This demands greater competence among journalists and broadcasters, but this is the first requirement in any profession.
The EDCA controversy
Consider what DU30 said on the withdrawal of American troops from Mindanao and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. At first, he said he wanted the US troops out, without disturbing EDCA, which authorizes the stationing of the troops inside Philippine bases. Then he said he wanted to see the agreement reviewed, a couple of weeks or so later.
On both occasions, he was clearly thinking aloud, but the media mechanically reported what he said, without cursory analysis or explanation. The result was general confusion.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana countermanded the President by saying the US troops would remain in Mindanao. Then Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said there would be no need to review EDCA because the Supreme Court had already ruled it was constitutional. This was the first time in the nation’s history that two senior Cabinet members publicly overruled the President and Commander-in-Chief on an important national security issue, without said Cabinet members resigning or being asked to resign.
In both instances, it was obvious the President had made an unfortunate misstatement, which needed to be refined; but it should have been done without causing him any undue “loss of face.” Instead of Lorenzana correcting the President, the latter should have amended his own statement, by saying that upon the recommendation of the security sector he was temporarily changing his position in favor of the US troops. No further explanation was needed.
Did Aquino sign the agreement?
With respect to EDCA, Yasay should have exerted greater effort to minimize the effect of DU30’s statement that the 2014 agreement was flawed because it did not bear the signature of the President of the Philippines. This was an obvious error, known to anyone who has heard of the Vienna Convention on Treaties. The President does not have to sign international agreements or treaties; lower officials are allowed to do so by investing them with “full powers” from the President.
Who signed the MBA, MDT, VFA?
In fact, the 1966 agreement shortening the 99-year lease term of the 1947 Philippine-US Military Bases Agreement to the next 25 years was signed only by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Philippine Foreign Secretary Narciso Ramos.
The Mutual Defense Treaty of Aug. 13, 1951—the core treaty governing Philippine-American security relations—was signed by Carlos P. Romulo, Joaquin Elizalde, Vicente J. Francisco and Diosdado Macapagal for the Philippines and by Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Tom Conally and Alexander Wiley for the US.
And the Visiting Forces Agreement, an implementing treaty of the MDT, was signed by Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon Jr. and US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard in 1998.
Yasay could have simply said that DU30 strongly believed BS Aquino 3rd should have personally signed EDCA since he had decided it should be a mere executive agreement rather than a treaty requiring the concurrence of the Senate. After all, President Manuel A. Roxas signed the 1947 Military Bases Agreement and the Military Assistance Agreement with US Ambassador Paul V. McNutt. This would have introduced a new perspective to DU30’s statement, and saved him from so much unnecessary embarrassment.
But Yasay chose to rebuke the President and expose him to ridicule when he said the Supreme Court ruling, which many lawyers scoff at, had rendered the proposed review unnecessary. He could have saved DU30 from his unfortunate slip, knowing that the President needed no legal excuse to subject EDCA to a review, anytime he wanted to do so. That is his prerogative. In fact, the agreement’s termination clause gives him the power to terminate the agreement upon one year’s notice. But it goes without saying that termination has to be based on a sound and objective assessment of the national interest, not on anything occasioned by a bout of foul language or the mere absence of the past President’s signature on the document.
Instead of making it appear that DU30 did not know what he was talking about, Yasay could have said that, because of certain intricate issues involved, the President has decided to hold his intended review of EDCA “under advisement.” This is close enough to gobbledygook, but it would have made it clear that the President was still in charge. Since it was the President who first talked about a review, he should also be the one to talk about not pushing through with it, rather than his foreign secretary, who is only his alter ego.
The use of language
There is no suggestion here of malice on the part of Yasay, but it seems he needs to show a little more competence, if one may be so blunt. Language is the soul of diplomacy: although he is nowhere near DU30’s grade in the use of language, he ought to have a better mastery of it.
In all this, the press had a major role to play. Albert Camus’ advice is worth its weight in gold: “Do not quote without judging.” The “honest error” by a totally spontaneous President was needlessly magnified by the less than competent reporting in the mainstream press. In the first instance, the press failed to point out that since the US troops were stationed in Mindanao under EDCA, they could not be pulled out except by mutual agreement between the two governments, or without first modifying the terms of the existing agreement.
But since DU30 had no plans of disturbing EDCA, then it means he could not implement the US pullout or he really had no serious plans of demanding such a pullout. Had the media made this clear, there would have been no need to hear from Lorenzana.
In the second instance, the press failed to supply the ready information that DU30 did not have under his thinking cap when he said the EDCA was flawed because his predecessor had failed to sign it. DU30 was misled into thinking that the signatures of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, on behalf of the Philippine government, and Ambassador Philip Goldberg, on behalf of the US, were not enough to validate the agreement.
No one tried to point out that under the Vienna Convention on Treaties they were authorized to represent their respective governments upon instructions of their Presidents. And no one bothered to find out if Aquino had signed the ratification of the agreement, which, in fact, he had. They apparently presumed that the agreement was never ratified because it was not coursed through the Senate.
Until now, most, if not all, of our newspapers, refer to the “ratification” of international agreements and treaties as a function and proceeding of the Senate. Thus, some of them say EDCA should have been “ratified” by the Senate. I maintain that, contrary to the Supreme Court ruling, EDCA should have been submitted to, and approved by, the Senate, pursuant to the clear language of the Constitution, which the High Court inexcusably misread. The result would have been a more stable agreement, not subject to the whimsies of a temperamental President.
But “ratification” is not the term for it. It is the Chief Executive that “ratifies” international agreements and treaties; the Senate merely “concurs” in the process.
The drive toward independence
The EDCA issue goes into the heart of our security alliance with the US, and DU30’s desire to forge an “independent” foreign policy for his government. DU30 needs to define these two concepts with sufficient clarity, and the press, instead of merely quoting the President, can and should help clarify what he says. Neither the one nor the other is doing that right now.
DU30’s apparent grievance against the US has nothing to do with its performance as a security, economic and political partner of the Philippines, but appears to be caused by the US government’s failure to turn a blind eye on the summary killing of suspects in his current war on drugs, and his use of vulgar and offensive speech as the lingua franca of his presidency, and as a political tool to humiliate and terrorize dissenters and critics.
He seeks to advance his avowed pursuit of an “independent” foreign policy by attacking Barack Obama, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and flashing the middle finger at the European Union in response to their criticism of the drug killings, and by speaking fondly of China and Russia, and the “high respect” he is allegedly getting from their leaders. But not everyone sees in this a drive toward independence; many rather see in it an attempt to replace an existing alliance with a world power with a new alliance with an emerging power.
What kind of independence?
This is not the “independent” foreign policy posture we’re looking forward to. We want to see the country on friendly terms with all the major powers, but dependent on none. If it has been a mistake to pivot toward America until now, would this be corrected by pivoting toward China and Russia? This is what DU30 must explain to our people. The Cabinet and the media must help.
Unfortunately, DU30 is the only one we hear.
Attended by a Mindanao-based Cabinet whose members are mostly from Davao, and from the law college in Manila where he had studied law as a young man, DU30 has managed to gather together a group of men and women with virtually zero experience in their respective fields of assignment; a couple of notable exceptions prove the rule. Even his communist appointees, whom even non-communists and anti-communists were expecting to perform, have failed to deliver. He and the nation deserve something better, and that may be long in coming.
In the beginning, any criticism of the man and what he says was quickly drowned by the thunderous applause from his supporters. After only three months in office, his alleged 91 percent approval rating is reported to have plunged to 64 percent, and roar of the next thunder from the ground may no longer be one of approval but one of disgruntlement and disapproval. Very few will accuse DU30 and his people of deliberate malice, but lack of competence, if not downright ignorance, in domestic as well as in foreign affairs, could take us to the point of no return.