Obama concerned about failed RP polls: ex-US official

Obama concerned about failed RP polls: ex-US official

MANILA, Philippines – The US government is concerned about alleged efforts to extend the term of the Arroyo administration through different failure of elections scenarios, a former US State department official said.

In an interview over ANC’s The Rundown on Wednesday, W. Scott Thompson said the US government is keeping its eyes and ears on how the May elections will be conducted. He said there are consequences if the process or the outcome of the elections is tainted.

“Now, they (Washington officials) are listening. Yes, they are aware that (failure of elections) might happen. There are awful lots of people warning them about it, and they might just make the difference,” Thompson said Wednesday evening.

He criticized former US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney for painting an overly optimistic picture of the Philippines. He said the new Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. and other Washington officials have been getting a clearer political picture just recently.

The May elections in the Philippines, a key ally of the US in Asia, has caught the attention of Washington after political tensions in neighboring Thailand erupted.

“The immediate reason is what’s happening in Thailand,” Thompson said. “That is making the Philippines 10 times as important. That (Thailand) was a very secure, calm ally. Now it is going to pieces.”

The political crisis in Thailand has deteriorated as Bangkok’s ruling elite is pitted against working class groups. The red-clad movement’s continuous call for elections through street protests has claimed 15 lives and is shaking the confidence in the region as a whole.

Thompson is professor emeritus of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Tufts University. He served the Ford and Reagan administrations. He used to be a Manila resident.


Various scenarios—from failure of elections, to military juntas, to other schemes to extend the term of President Arroyo beyond 2010—have been floated. The warnings have come from the likes of former security adviser Jose Almonte, former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., and former President Fidel V. Ramos.

“We’re waiting to see if the process is orderly,” he said. “I think it (Washington) has made clear now (to the Arroyo administration) that it is committed to a fair, orderly election process. If that doesn’t happen, then there are consequences.”

Washington, the political capital of the US, can send different signals to the Arroyo administration if the Philippine elections is not clean, Thompson stressed.

“The various elements we know she (President Arroyo) has put in place – the Supreme Court justices, the [PMA] Class of ’78 (Philippine military), etcetera – are ready. If she tries to steal or otherwise postpone the elections, then something can happen from outside,” he noted.

Washington has already sent signals to the Arroyo administration, according to Thompson. He cited how worried President Arroyo has been on the possible judicial reviews of her previous actions after she is no longer president by June 2010. “Officials in Washington might might have something to do with that.”

He said signals of the power relationship between the two countries can be checked through the goings on at the political capitals, Washington and Manila.

“Historically, the power relationship is always played out in the bigger country’s capital, in this case Washington, not here (in Manila),” he explained.

He said the US government has various ways to show its displeasure. “You can recall your ambassador, or send ambassador in (to Washington) for a chat. The first thing that the Secretary of State or Assistant Secretary would do is invite your ambassador. “

“If that doesn’t play out, you can recall your ambassador, slow down aid flows, make speeches. You can warn the President that there are things that might happen.”

Kenny’s failure

The Obama administration has been taken by surprise by the failure-of-elections scenarios because the former US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney painted an overly optimistic picture of the country under President Arroyo, said Thompson.

He said it was only in the recent months that the Obama administration has been taking a long look at the Philippines, and the picture they are getting is different from Kenny’s reports.

“For the past 3 years, the (US) embassy (in the Philippines) was sending the official message (to Washington) that there is no problem here. It’s like someone in Washington (was) saying in September 2001 ‘Oh what a beautiful month this is,’” he said sarcastically.

“She (Kenney) just didn’t get it. The embassy is just out of touch with the reality here,” he criticized.

He shared that, according to his friends in Washington, Kenney did not listen to her own staff, including opposition groups in Manila. “She had only two sources: GMA (President Arroyo) and (Executive) Secretary (Eduardo) Ermita.”

He criticized Kenny’s efforts to endear herself to the Filipinos by going to fiestas, dancing in entertainment shows on TV, and being a staple in basketball games and tennis matches.

“She was not listening to what was going, which is a diplomat’s first function,” he stressed.

It is only recently that Washington is discovering the political issues in Manila because “they sent
a much higher ranking ambassador and who is more senior than the one here in the past 3 years.”

New, tougher envoy

Thompson expressed confidence in Harry Thomas Jr,, the new US ambassador who replaced Kenney. US President Obama appointed the new envoy to the Philippines last November.

“He’s a tough guy. Has been in Bangladesh, not in tiny Ecuador like Kristie (Kenney). He has ran the biggest foreign service officers show in Washington. I think we should take him seriously,” he said of Thomas.

Thomas is a former Director General of the United States Foreign Service, executive secretary of the US State Department, director of the Department’s Operations Center, and special assistant to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Aside from Bangladesh, his previous postings include India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Peru.

Thompson said Thomas has the ears of key officials in Washington, and has already sent the message that failure-of-election scenarios are being mulled here.

Thompson said the new envoy will do things differently to continue getting a clearer political picture. “In the first place, there will be more distancing between the (US) embassy and Malacañang. None of the intimacy that you saw in the couple of years.”

‘Obama doesn’t like Arroyo’

Thompson said US President Obama does not like President Arroyo.

“I think he (Obama) doesn’t like her (Arroyo),” he candidly told The Rundown. “(His dislike is) not personal. I think he knows what she’s been up to.”

His basis? “That’s what my friends at high levels have told me. (Another is from) reading his body language with her.”

He gave an example: “His failure to acknowledge her presence on various occasions.”

President Obama did not immediately return the congratulatory call of President Arroyo, who was among heads of states that wanted to greet him after his historic win in 2008.

In February 2009, President Arroyo failed to meet with President Obama in Washington despite efforts by Filipino diplomats. She flew to the US after she failed to get an audience with him during a side trip to Bahrain to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, one of the earliest official engagements of the newly inaugurated President Obama. The foreign trip was originally intended for the economic meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

She finally met with him last July 2009. It was a brief meeting, lasting some 45 minutes. Thompson said it wasn’t taken seriously in Washington. “It was something extended to (different) heads of state. It was pretty routine.”

The cozy relationship between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also does not matter if, according to Thompson, higher principles like President Obama’s commitment to democracy come into play. Clinton visited Manila last November 2009.

“I don’t think her (Hillary Clinton’s) personal relationship with (President) Arroyo would come to play when it gets up to the level of stealing, postponing, and failing the elections under any guise that’s tainted. And it’s hard to see how it would fail without being tainted,” he stressed.

Why US cares?

The Rundown’s host Ricky Carandang prodded Thompson on why Washington cares about the goings on in the Philippines.

The former US State Department official cited Thailand’s political crisis as the trigger.

He also said that “Philippines is in our guilt conscience. We were not proud of the fact that we were a colonial power. We did a lot of things here we are not proud of. We don’t like to think of the fact that we are not doing well here.”

He also said they are wary of “another 1972,” referring to the period leading to the declaration of martial law by former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos who eventually stayed in power for two decades.

“We paid a high price when we supported Marcos.”

He added that supporting the administration of President Corazon Aquino, who replaced President Marcos after a bloodless revolution, was part of their atonement.

The sentiment of the US government under the Obama administration is to promote democracy, “which is part of his image.”

“Here is a friend (Philippines) where democracy can work with some nudging from its friend (US),” he concluded.

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.