Addressing a joint session of the Philippine Congress on Saturday, President Bush said to skeptical critics of his Iraq policy, “Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy. The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of Asia. These doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago, when the Republic of the Philippines became the first democratic nation in Asia.”
Much in Bush’s speech was utter nonsense — such as his claim that the war in Iraq had resulted in the closing down of a terrorist sanctuary, when in fact the U.S. “has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one,” in the words of terrorism expert Jessica Stern. But Bush was right when he suggested that looking at the U.S. record in the Philippines can help to illuminate what is in store for Iraq.
What does the historical record tell us about the U.S. commitment to promoting democracy?
A hundred years ago, the United States defeated the Spanish colonizers of the Philippines only to take over the islands for itself. (In Bush’s speech on Saturday this was summarized as “Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.” And in the words of presidential press secretary Scott McClellan, national hero Jose Rizal’s martyrdom in 1896 inspired the Philippines: “And later, revolution broke out and Asia soon had its first independent republic.”
Well, yes, but that independent republic was promptly conquered by the United States.) When critics of the U.S. annexation of the Philippines charged that Washington had not obtained the consent of the inhabitants, Senator Henry Cabot Ledge replied that if consent of the inhabitants were necessary “then our whole past record of expansion is a crime.”
What did Filipinos want back in 1898? What was their democratic wish? According to a U.S. general testifying before the U.S. Senate, Filipinos had so little notion of what independence meant that they probably thought it was something to eat. “They have no more idea of what it means than a shepherd dog,” he explained. But shortly afterwards in his testimony, the general stated that the Filipinos “want to get rid of the Americans.” “They do?” asked a confused Senator. “Yes, sir,” replied the general. “They want us driven out, so that they can have this independence, but they do not know what it is.”
This U.S. inability to understand the real meaning of self-determination was not just a turn-of-the-century myopia. Consider the following scene from the 1945 motion picture “Back to Bataan.” In a 1941 Philippine schoolhouse, an American teacher asks the students what the United States gave to the Philippines. “Soda pop!” “Hot dogs!” “Movies!” “Radio!” “Baseball!” scream the pupils. But, the teacher and the principal correct the erring youngsters by explaining that the real American contribution was teaching the Filipinos freedom. At first, however, says the teacher with a straight face, the Filipinos did not appreciate freedom for they “resisted the American occupation.”
Indeed they did. And many thousands of Filipinos — combatants and non-combatants — were slaughtered by U.S. military forces to teach Filipinos the U.S. meaning of freedom.
In 1946, after nearly half a century, U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines came to an end. But U.S. domination continued and Philippine democracy remained thwarted. This was not the first instance where a colony was given independence and colonialism was replaced with neocolonialism. To take one example at random, Britain gave Iraq independence in 1932, but not before it had signed a 25-year treaty granting London access to Iraqi military bases and western oil companies had attained a lock on Iraqi oil.
The pattern in the Philippines was similar: Washington retained two huge military bases and many smaller ones on a 99-year, rent-free lease. The Philippine city of Olongapo became, in the words of a 1959 account in Time magazine, “the only foreign city run lock, stock and barrel by the U.S. Navy.” The terms of the bases agreement were revised several times over the next few decades, but as U.S. officials acknowledged even in the 1970s nowhere did the United States have more extensive and more unhindered base rights than in the Philippines. These bases served for years as the logistic hub for U.S. interventions from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf; Washington, not Manila, decided how these bases would be used and against whom, and the Philippine people were not informed of the presence of nuclear weapons on their soil.
The independent Philippines was also subordinated to the United States economically. The Philippine government was prohibited from changing the value of its currency without the approval of the U.S. president and U.S. investors were given special investment rights in the Philippines. U.S. officials insisted that Filipinos democratically accepted the special investment rights, but in fact, the enabling legislation passed the Philippine Congress only after dissenting legislators were improperly suspended, and Filipinos ratified the investment rights in a referendum only because Washington made rehabilitation aid to the war-ravaged Philippines dependent upon Filipinos voting yes.
From 1946 to 1972, the Philippines was a formal democracy in the sense of having contested elections. But it was a political system in which two coalitions of the wealthy elite, indistinguishable by ideology or program, competed for power, with a major determinant of success being the overt or covert backing of the U.S. government. It is true that there was an issue separating the candidates in 1965 when Ferdinand Marcos ran on a pledge not to send Philippine civic action troops to Vietnam, but since Marcos violated his campaign promise as soon as he won the election, this is hardly a meaningful exception.
This may have been another instance of U.S. political tutelage of the Filipinos — recall that during the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign Lyndon Johnson had pledged “No Wider War” and then promptly escalated U.S. military involvement — but more likely Marcos’s reversal was swayed by the U.S. funds secretly sent his way.
By 1972, despite the best efforts of the Philippine elite and their U.S. allies, Philippine democracy was finally beginning to express itself. Politicians were finding that their usual vote-buying no longer worked (“They take money but vote for the man they think is qualified,” complained one politician.) Peasants, students, and workers were increasingly challenging the status quo. Reacting to the popular pressures, the Congress and even the Supreme Court were moving in a more and more nationalistic direction, threatening U.S. interests. And so when Marcos, approaching the end of his second and final term as president, declared martial law, there were no denunciations emanating from Washington.
On the contrary, as Marcos closed down Congress and the press and arrested his political opponents, Washington stepped up its military and economic aid. As a U.S. Senate staff report summarized the U.S. reaction, “military bases and a familiar government in the Philippines are more important than the preservation of democratic institutions which were imperfect at best.”
For the more than decade-long dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, he was backed by the United States government. When he cosmetically lifted martial law in 1981, but retained all his martial law powers intact, the U.S. vice president George H. W. Bush visited Manila and raised a toast to Marcos: “We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes.”
In 1986, the Philippine people, showing that they, unlike their leaders or those in Washington, really understood democracy, ousted Marcos, while the Reagan administration hung on to him until the last possible moment.
Corazon Aquino replaced Marcos and initially she had several progressives in her government and announced a program of social reform as the way to deal with the country’s long-running insurgency problem. But under pressure from the United States and the Philippine armed forces, the progressives were removed and Aquino’s agenda became one of military action instead of social reform.
Despite Aquino’s best efforts, the new post-Marcos constitution stated that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate.” Nationalist sentiment was strong enough in the country that in 1991 the Philippine Senate voted against extending the U.S.-Philippines Military Bases Agreement. But almost as soon as the vote was taken, the U.S. tried with the help of cooperative Philippine officials to get around the constitution.
In 1999, an agreement was concluded giving the U.S. “access” to Philippine bases and in 2002 hundreds of U.S. troops were sent to the Philippines to help fight the Abu Sayyef guerrillas. Today, according to an Agence France Presse report, “the Pentagon is working to maintain on the islands what US Pacific Command head Admiral Thomas Fargo called ‘critical tactical mobility platforms,’ including UH-1H helicopters, C-130 transport aircraft, heavy trucks and patrol boats that could be used in case of major U.S. military operations in the region.”
Of course, these U.S. troops and equipment need not violate the Philippine constitution if only President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would submit the appropriate treaty to the Senate. But suspecting that such a treaty would be voted down, the Arroyo administration and its U.S. counterpart have chosen to simply ignore the constitution. This is the hallmark not of democracy but of neocolonialism.
In Iraq today, there is plainly no democracy: the U.S. runs the show. As an adviser to one of the members of the U.S. appointed Iraq Governing Council put it, “The population of Iraq perceives correctly that it is the occupiers who are running things. Everybody else is there in some secondary or subservient role.” But even if and when elections are held, and an Iraqi government formally takes over, one can expect a neocolonial relationship, one where the U.S. helps make sure that the Iraqis in charge support U.S. interests.
Already we see indications of U.S. goals. The New York Times reported on April 29, 2003, “The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.”
One senior administration official stated that “There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan. The scope of that has yet to be defined — whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating bases or just plain access.” Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld denied the story, but five months later (9/21/03) another Times story indicated that Bush administration officials “say the future Iraqi government will decide . . . whether to allow the United States to establish permanent bases here, should the Pentagon seek them.”
In terms of economic policy, the Independent commented (9/22/03), “Iraq was in effect put up for sale yesterday when the American-appointed administration announced it was opening up all sectors of the economy to foreign investors. . . . The initiative bore all the hallmarks of Washington’s ascendant neoconservative lobby, complete with tax cuts and trade tariff rollbacks. It will apply to everything from industry to health and water, although not oil.” And as for oil, the U.S.-appointed chair of the U.S.-established “advisory” committee for the Iraqi oil industry, Philip J. Carroll, former head of Shell Oil, has said that the one near-certainty is that the future expansion of Iraq’s oil industry will be driven in part by foreign capital.
In his speech to the Philippine Congress, George W. Bush thanked “the citizens of Manila who lined the streets today for their warm and gracious welcome.” He may not have seen the thousands of Filipinos protesting his visit. Bush’s motorcade was delayed for an hour while the Secret Service worried about his security and U.S. and Philippine authorities (there’s that democratic tutelage again) kept the demonstrators — and real democracy — penned behind traffic barriers and blockades of military vehicles.