In “The Interpreter” op-ed column in the New York Times, Max Fisher reported that President Obama, during his final year in office, spent time in acknowledging United States’ misdeeds in various countries that he has visited.
So far this year, Obama has visited Cuba, Argentina, Vietnam and Japan, each time discussing historical trouble spots and decades-old but still sensitive events, framed in the language of reconciliation and expiation.
1.) In March, Obama visited Cuba and President Raúl Castro. He told a Cuban audience that the United States had previously tried to “exert control over Cuba” and treated it as “something to exploit.” By tacitly rejecting past American behavior, Obama signaled that he would not repeat it. By opening himself up to criticism at home, he showed his willingness to make sacrifices for improved relations.
2.) Also in March, Obama visited Argentina. While there, he talked of a 1976 military coup that had received tacit American approval. He said: “The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies, as well, and its own past.
“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for.”
3.) In May in Hiroshima, Obama cited the suffering caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Max Fisher wrote, “This signaled not just Obama’s concerns about nuclear weapons and his understanding of Japan’s needs, and US readiness to commit resources to meet them. This could help convince Tokyo that it can count on American support when it comes to, say, naval confrontations with China.
4.) This September, on the occasion of the Asean and East Asia summits in Laos, the misdeed singled out for reconciliation was the C.I.A.-led bombing and paramilitary campaign that devastated Laos during the Vietnam War. President Obama stopped short of offering an apology in Laos, but his words were clear and appropriately contrite, in “acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.”
Why exclude the Philippines?
In this litany of grievance and regret, why did President Obama leave out the Philippines, which is surely as deserving of conciliation as all these countries, if not more so?
Surely, it cannot be because President Obama has a crystal ball like that of a fortuneteller who can accurately predict that President Rodrigo Duterte would fly off the handle and bury him in profanities in the two summits in Vientiane.
More likely, it was a deliberate decision to exclude the Philippines from consideration, having already gotten our government’s assent to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the disguised return of US military presence in the country – and even the endorsement of our integrity-challenged Supreme Court.
These considerations notwithstanding, it is totally baffling that in Obama’s selection of countries with whom to talk of reconciliation and expiation, he forgot the Philippines and the Filipinos.
Because it was here in our archipelago, and in 1898, where and when the United States of America embraced its destiny to become a global and imperial power – at the expense of our people and our newly inaugurated republic.
Given this glaring omission, either our foreign affairs department or our embassy in Washington was totally clueless about what was afoot in the Obama administration, or Obama wanted to send a message to President Duterte to mind his mouth and his human rights report card.
A turning point in history
By any measure in geopolitics and history, the US decision to invade, conquer and annex the Philippines in 1898 was epochal – a turning point, a watershed in history
In his book, 1898, The Birth of the American Century (vintage, 1998), the historian David Traxel wrote, “The United States had irrevocably entered the world in 1898, and although a strong isolationist movement would intermittently rise throughout the century, there could be no turning back to the country‘s earlier policy of avoiding foreign entanglements.”
That is the American viewpoint, and the verdict is shared by most historians.
There was another view of events—the Filipino’s viewpoint. To one Filipino historian and political scientist, Dr. Floro C. Quibuyen, in his book, A Nation Aborted (Ateneo University Press, 2008), American conquest in 1898 aborted the Philippine republic, which was the fitting climax of the Philippine revolution of 1896.
Dr. Quibuyen wrote: “American conquest deformed, with the wholehearted cooperation of the local elite, the blossoming nationalist hegemony, thereby co-opting the anti-Spanish, anti-colonial movement, and transforming it into a pro- American nationalism.
“On the cultural terrain, this was accomplished by the appropriation of Rizal by the American colonial regime.
“The nation – as civil society that Rizal had envisioned – did not materialize. What emerged, instead, was the monstrosity of nation-statism, and a people completely cut off from the spirit of 1896.”
Moving beyond the past
In a briefing with reporters, Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said, “A hallmark of President Obama’s tenure has been to face and acknowledge our history.”
That history has included “points of departure” from the United States’ “overwhelmingly positive” role in the world, Ms. Rice said. “Where that’s the case, we should acknowledge it.”
This practice, she added, “serves our interests and our relationships in our ability to move beyond the past in some of these places.”
Mr. Obama hints that the United States has caused harm abroad and perhaps even made mistakes. He squares American rhetoric with reality as the world perceives it. Supporters see this as sending a message to foreign states that they can trust Washington to hear their concerns and even compromise, encouraging allies and adversaries alike to invest political capital in the relationship.
Despite talk of rock-hard closeness, the US and the Philippines have not moved beyond the past in their own relationship. This is why President Duterte’s unexpected disclosure of a massacre in Mindanao perpetrated by American troops during the Philippine-American War was so shocking and unsettling.
Had President Obama not skipped the Philippines in his bygones tour, this unfortunate row might have been avoided. But no one had the wit to remind him of the Philippine-American War.