Monday, February 23, 2009

The rising cost of a spoiled American breakfast

President Arroyo’s latest attempt to meet US President Barack Obama has cost the nation a lot---not only in terms of money but above all in terms of national honor, dignity and self-respect. Now it threatens to exact its own pound of flesh from the US government itself. Suddenly some of our senators are talking of junking the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

It all started on the wrong foot. First Mrs. Arroyo flew to Davos apparently hoping to bump into Obama at the World Economic Forum. He did not attend. Then she flew to Washington, D.C. after stopping in Italy, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to see Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. She had no better luck.

No one had the good sense to advise Mrs. Arroyo that Obama was not going to Davos, and that even if their eyes should meet at the Washington breakfast, there was no way of arranging a “photo opportunity” on the spot. If a Mother Teresa had strayed into the breakfast, then Obama might have sought her out.

As a rule no president travels 10,000 miles one-way to attend a prayer breakfast where he or she has no speaking part. The Fellowship, which sponsors the annual event, knew this. Thus they invited US-based guests from 170 countries but not a single foreign head of state. Of the 8,000 locals and foreigners invited, however, only 3,000 chose to attend the $425-per head “event.”

The annual prayer breakfast is held on the first Thursday of February at the huge ballroom of the Washington Hilton. I know the place, having attended the Catholic Prayer Breakfast there at least twice, with then President George W. Bush as honored guest. From what I saw, the arrangements did not promise any possibility of a “photo op.”

The guest of honor sits in a recessed area, fenced off waist-high from the rest of the hall where the other guests sit in round tables of 10 to 12. He enters the room through a private backdoor minutes before he speaks and leaves through the same door immediately thereafter. He never mixes with the guests.

At the Catholic breakfast there last April, my wife and I sat one table away from President Bush, with Sen. John McCain, Sen. Sam Brownback, two bishops one Dominican provincial, and Cathy Ruse, the wife of the program-host Austin Ruse. People lined up to be photographed with McCain, and we had an abundant eye-to-eye contact with Bush. But nobody tried to approach the President, and he did not extend his hand across the divide. He left soon after his speech. The same thing must have happened with Obama. Mrs. Arroyo could have been seated next to Obama’s table, but he could not have reached out to shake hands, even if he had noticed her presence.

There is no need to explain that Mrs. Arroyo failed to get her “photo op” because Obama arrived late and had to rush out. The simple truth is that no meeting took place because no meeting had been arranged. Presidents do not bump into each other because they went to the same restaurant.

Now, is it purely coincidental that after this terrible fiasco some senators should suddenly start suggesting the scrapping of the VFA? Some are even beginning to look bigger than themselves just for pointing out that under the counterpart agreement a Filipino soldier who commits a crime in the US shall be detained not at the Philippine embassy but “in penal institutions in the United States suitable for the custody level of prisoners.” Do they know if the embassy has any extra space at all even for just one such detainee? Or the funds and security personnel for that purpose?

The VFA is certainly a flawed agreement. The apparently “permanent” presence of the US forces and the current conflict on criminal jurisdiction over the convicted Corporal Smith have shown this. While we have agreed to host short US military visits, what has happened since is that as one military exercise ends another begins, thereby creating an apparently “permanent” US presence. It seems a neat way of circumventing the Constitution which provides that no foreign troops, bases or facilities shall be allowed in the country except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and recognized as such by the contracting parties.

We should confront these issues. But never for reasons that are suspect. That the senators have suddenly become audible on the VFA right after Mrs. Arroyo’s latest fiasco, and the omission of the Philippines from Hilary Clinton’s itinerary on her first Asian visit as US Secretary of State makes this unusual burst of energy rather suspect.

The VFA is not a stand-alone agreement. It is but an implementing agreement of our 1951 Mutal Defense Treaty. Its abrogation will only scrap the agreed rules under which American troops come for joint exercises but not our duty to host such visits under the agreed terms of our “mutual defense.” Not all those who are now talking about the VFA apparently appreciate this. This is where the danger lies.

20 February 2009

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