June 24, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Winning hearts and minds

Some critics of United States global policy say that the US not only supports the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); it also created it (see, for example, www.globalresearch.ca). Although that claim was hooted down as part of his disinformation campaign, Donald Trump said the same thing during the US presidential elections last year, when he said that ISIS is a creation of the Barack Obama administration.


If that were indeed the case, the US’ providing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “technical assistance” in the campaign against the supposedly ISIS-affiliated Maute Group in Marawi City would seem to defy logic. But neither logic, reason, nor sense drives the policies and actions of the lone superpower which, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-US rants, continues to have a commanding presence in the Philippines. Self-interest does.

He declined to provide details, but US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim did confirm that US Special Forces were providing the AFP air surveillance and other forms of support in Marawi. President Rodrigo Duterte professed ignorance, but his military and defense officials declared that they had asked for US assistance.

Ambassador Kim had pointedly dismissed last April Mr. Duterte’s tirades against US intentions in the Philippines by declaring that “We will not change ever. We will continue to be your friend and supporter in the years and decades to come” -- statements that in effect implied that whatever Mr. Duterte says or does, the country’s close relations with, and dependence on the US, having been the reality for decades, cannot so easily be dismantled or even changed.

The Ambassador was of course right, as events are rapidly confirming. Mr. Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” initiative has foundered on the shoals of military, business, politicians’ and even his own officials’ opposition, with the Marawi crisis providing these oppositors even more ammunition.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, for example, immediately urged Mr. Duterte to “swallow his pride” and to thank the US for its help, even as AFP and Defense department spokespersons confirmed that they had asked for US assistance in the fight against the Maute group.

Mr. Duterte ended up eating his earlier words questioning US motives in the Philippines, as he indeed expressed his gratitude for US assistance, no doubt due to his fears, fanned by the military itself, that AFP efforts to eliminate the Maute and Abu Sayyaf threats may not be enough to end the three-week conflict in Marawi City.

The reality is that Philippine dependency on the US as State policy is rooted in the abiding interests of the Philippine political and economic elite.

But despite that inherent advantage, the US has never failed to do all it can to make sure that, in addition to elite support, it will continue to enjoy the ordinary Filipino’s belief and trust in the goodness, benevolence and altruism of his country’s former colonizer by demonstrating at every opportunity how much the Philippines needs its “friendship.”

Ambassador Kim was in fact speaking last April in Tacloban City, where he turned over to the Philippine government a training center and classrooms the US was providing as part of its assistance to Leyte in the aftermath of the damage to that province inflicted by typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

The US has been particularly active in disaster and rehabilitation efforts in these disaster-prone islands, which provides no little help in continuing to assure the US of grassroots approval and gratitude among most Filipinos. “Winning hearts and minds” by digging ditches, providing schools, wells and other necessities, even working alongside farmers to secure their allegiance to the ruling system, was part of the US strategy during its war in Vietnam from the 1950s to 1975 to win over the rural population.

The same principle is at work in the Philippine military’s counter-insurgency strategy, which supposedly emphasizes community development. It is similarly behind US disaster aid, except that what the US is doing is to keep Filipinos firmly committed to the myth of “special relations.”

Although US assistance in AFP operations in Marawi has nothing to do with natural disasters, it serves the same purpose as well, with the added bonus of undermining whatever agreement with his criticism of US intentions and history of intervention in the Philippines Mr. Duterte may have gained from his fellow Filipinos.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Filipinos to convince them of the need to change the foundations of US-Philippine relations from dependency to mutual respect and nonintervention is in fact fast shaping up as a lost cause for Mr. Duterte.

Among other claims, Mr. Duterte once declared that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was planning a terrorist attack in Davao City when he was its mayor, and that the 2015 Mamasapano debacle in which 58 Filipinos were killed was a CIA operation.

Those declarations, which have been part of his anti-US repertoire since his election to the Presidency, have not sat well with the US and its local agents, some of whom, Mr. Duterte has reportedly said in private, are in the Duterte Cabinet itself. Neither have these claims resonated in the consciousness of most Filipinos as they perhaps should.

Mr. Duterte is no doubt familiar with the allegation that ISIS is US-created and supported. He most probably declared martial law in Mindanao among other reasons because the “rebellion” by the supposedly ISIS-affiliated Maute group could be the first salvo of an attempt by pro-US forces to remove him from office.

ISIS is a reincarnation of al Qaeda, which the US aided and abetted in Afghanistan against the pro-USSR Karmal regime in the 1980s. There is evidence that in Syria, US arms ostensibly meant for so-called rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are actually falling into ISIS hands. It’s hardly surprising. The US will support whatever group will help further its own interests -- or, to put it in another way, will attack whatever group may be acting against those interests while supporting it elsewhere.

The US may be supporting ISIS in Syria because ISIS, like the US, is trying to overthrow the Assad regime. But it can also attack its surrogates in the Philippines for the more eminent purpose of further reinforcing Filipino affection for everything American, which is a definite advantage when it comes to the populace’s support for US actions and intentions, including involvement in any attempt at “regime change.”

Mr. Duterte is apparently convinced that a coup with US help or at least tacit approval to remove him from power is likely. He has repeatedly mentioned that possibility, and as a result has been visibly courting the allegiance of the military rank-and-file by promising them such extra perks as housing, new and better weapons, etc., even as his own military and defense officials contradict and take issue with his criticism of US policy and his declaration of the Philippines’ “separation” from the United States.

The Marawi crisis has accelerated the Duterte regime’s shift to the Right, as it bends to US and military pressure and prepares for the extension of martial rule in Mindanao, the nationwide declaration of martial law, and the consequent restoration of authoritarian rule: developments that are particularly ironic as the country marked the 119th anniversary of Philippine independence.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

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