IF you have the impression that several of us, Manila Times columnists, seem to be pursuing a common theme this week, you are not mistaken. It is, however, completely unplanned; being the sort of independent-minded prima donnas we are (we all worked hard to get that way, so don’t expect any of us to apologize for it), “coordination” is not something we make a habit of doing.
It is our habit, however, to constantly stretch our intuitive capabilities to detect (and then, to the best of our ability, explain to all of you) the deep currents that actually move the nation and the world. That often requires a good deal of imagination and non-linear thinking. And then there are the times when the forces moving things around are so pervasive and obvious that even the most distracted mind couldn’t ignore them; those are the times when our wonderful editor will say to us, with bemusement and perhaps just a hint of mild frustration, “You know you guys all wrote about the same thing again, right?”
Well, no, we didn’t know that; but if it is an issue that properly fits the description of the most important thing our vast audience needs to know and understand at the moment, then whether we knew it or not is irrelevant.
And that is the situation we find ourselves in now. In case no one has spelled it out for you yet, the world is at war. In just the month beginning Oct. 27, the Daesh group—which is just one of the Islamist terror groups plaguing the world, and not even the biggest or the most savage, has carried out 13 terrorist attacks in six countries, resulting in at least 478 deaths and 758 people wounded, apart from the human toll of their ‘combat’ operations, and the atrocities they commit on a daily basis in the territories under their control. And that does not include the vast numbers of people killed by Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and other groups tearing apart North and Central Africa, al-Qaeda in Yemen, the Taliban and Lakh-I-Taiba in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the lower-intensity but still vicious depredations by Muslim separatists in Southern Thailand, the Abu Sayyaf here in the Philippines, Uighurs in Western China, and the Chechens in Russia’s southern Caucasian region.
In their columns yesterday, former ambassador Bobi Tiglao pointed out, not for the first time, the utter folly of even considering cooperating with the demands of a Muslim minority for their own state, the very thing for which the Daesh group is waging war on the rest of the world. Former senator Kit Tatad hit that same nail even harder, asking whether our navel-gazing debate over how best to violate the law in order to elect an alien housewife who would like everyone to believe she’s Little Orphan Annie is really the best way to go about choosing a leader in wartime.
Being a little more commercially-minded, of course, the first question that comes to my mind is whether the Philippines is economically equipped to face what is looking more and more like a very grim near future. When the most sophisticated equipment (which began arriving yesterday with much fanfare at Clark Air Base) this country has is an airplane that is considered at best an advanced trainer that wouldn’t last 30 seconds in an encounter with even the second-line fighters in the Chinese air force, and the next most sophisticated is a 40-year-old ship resurrected from America’s scrap heap, the Philippines will need to put a priority on catching up quickly—something that will require adroit management and more than a little political will, along with a lot more money than the government can actually apply to the task. And make no mistake: Fighting terror does require strong conventional forces, as well as carefully developed cooperative efforts to “win hearts and minds.” Some hearts and minds will always be beyond reach, and if the country is not capable of mounting a visible and effective defense against them, no other efforts will succeed.
The direct costs—strengthening conventional forces, improving the capabilities of police and other security forces, improving intelligence-gathering and surveillance capabilities, strengthening border controls—are all only a part of the expense that is being imposed on the country. Is the Philippines prepared to adjust to a downturn in investment (which is already unimpressive), reductions in tourism, and the somewhat intangible but still significant lowering of consumer confidence?
At this point, the country is definitely not prepared, because the prevailing belief—which in turn underlies current policy—is that it can’t happen here. That is a foolhardy belief.
What my colleagues Tiglao and Tatad didn’t quite point out, although it was implicit in their views, is that the Philippines absolutely must prepare for war. This country is a soft target as it is, and as the defenses against terrorism from the more developed world stiffen, the terrorists will shift the conflict to places where success is a little more likely.
On the bright side, if there is one, economies on a war footing have historically been very beneficial, at least for a useful amount of time, in terms of generating industrial development, innovation, and employment. Those three areas are aspects of the economy where the Philippines has lagged for years anyway, so the grim reality of the world—provided the country’s leadership can wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak—may actually be a blessing in disguise.