Walking back the VFA mess

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    PEOPLE who have worked in government will be familiar with siege mentality – defined by Merriam Webster as “a defensive or overly fearful attitude.” In other words, everyone is out to get you. The nature of high-level government positions carries with it the vulnerability to develop siege mentality, as the constant bombardment of problems on a daily basis, matched with the pressure to deliver results, can take a toll on one’s outlook.

    I imagine that the best and the brightest along the Pasig river must be feeling the weight of impending crisis these past few weeks, ever since President Duterte rambled his threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States as a form of retaliation for an offense of the highest level – the US dared to cancel the visa of Sen. Bato dela Rosa, Duterte’s favorite PNP chief. Yes, dear millennials and fillennials, a treaty with a long-standing ally is in a precarious position because of a perceived personal slight suffered by the President’s factotum. Imagine that.

    Judging by the numerous conflicting statements coming out of the Palace, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Department of National Defense, it seems that there are those who are trying to delay executing this rambling to terminate the VFA in an effort to walk back the President’s inclination. While I am aware that the President did publicly make that statement (under more normal circumstances, such would already be considered a policy directive), our experience with this particular Chief Executive is that nothing is certain until it is actually carried out. I can imagine that the US desk at the DFA must be having daily conniption fits because of the uncertainty, same with their counterparts at the DND. Those holding the line at both departments must be commended, for they know better than anyone else the long-term impact of such a hasty termination.

    Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, known to be one of the more sober and stabilizing voices in the cabinet, was clearly incensed at Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo’s declaration that “President Duterte is instructing Executive Secretary Medialdea to tell Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin to send the notice of termination to the US government.”

    Lorenzana called it “fake news,” adding that Locsin has not seen the order yet. Branding it “fake news” is unusual for Lorenzana, especially in reference to a statement made by a fellow cabinet member. Then again, maybe Lorenzana finally had enough of Panelo’s thoughtless style, which has sparked controversy time and time again. One cabinet member complained to me that Panelo frequently goes off the reservation when it comes to his statements, often causing problems for other cabinet members who have to scurry to put out the fire.

    I hope that this time, the President listens to the sober voices in his ear. The Visiting Forces Agreement is by no stretch perfect, and most will agree that there are disadvantages to its continued existence. Those in the Left have called for its revocation for as long as the VFA has been around. There is good reason to review the agreement and negotiate for some amendments, based on thoughtful study and experience-based analysis. It should not, however, be revoked on a whim, with the nation’s interest relegated to the back burner, merely on the proposition that a slight (as perceived) was committed against a factotum.

    However, this mess could all be a sleight of hand, and is calculated to move the country away from the strategic partnership with the US and more into the friendship with China, just executed with the usual bells and whistles. The diplomatic and defense lines are working overtime to avert the latter case, and the next few weeks will show us whether our country’s policy making has truly sunk to the lowest of the low, where personal interest is king.

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