Monthly Archives: September 2005

The devil in the details

I do not know how the opposition will regard assistant government corporate counsel Efren Gonzales from now on, after his testimony on the North Rail project at the Senate yesterday. He had testified without the President’s permission, because he said he believed himself to be excluded from EO 464’s coverage. But his testimony did not please the project’s foremost critic, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile.

For that matter, I have no clue as to how the administration will view him either.

I’ve noticed a tendency among the hard-liners or the true believers (take your pick) on both sides of the political divide to paint the world from George W. Bush’s extremely limited palette: black or white, us or them, either-you-are-with-us-or-you-are-against-us. So for the hard core, is Efren Gonzales a martyr for the truth or a traitor to the cause?

Here’s a revealing detail from the Inquirer story on him, written by one of our newer reporters, DJ Yap, that should make the answer to the question even more interesting.

The Inquirer went to the OGCC offices yesterday and confirmed that Gonzales’ office was indeed locked, and not padlocked.

Oddly enough, a staff member who wished not to be named said she received a call from Gonzales asking her to admit that the office had been padlocked for a few minutes but the lock was removed after Gonzales reported it to the senators.

Gonzales purportedly told the staff member it would give a bad impression if his own office denied what he had just said on national television.

I do not know whether that makes Efren Gonzales a hero or a heel. Perhaps   — Holy Shades of Inconvenient Gray! — he is neither?

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Act of God

Executive Order 464 should not have been unexpected, but its issuance still caught many by surprise. In that sense, it was an act of God: an unforeseen event, now wreaking havoc on the political landscape.

The latest justification for it seems almost innocuous: It is meant, according to Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, to protect the agents of the executive from congressional persecution. "Public servants who dedicate their lives to their country deserve to carry out their duties without fear of persecution," he told reporters today.

I have no doubt that some of the President’s closest allies see wisdom in the new EO; they may even have asked the President for it. The example of the National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales twisting in the hot air inside the Senate must have put the fear of God, or at least induced vertigo, in not a few of them.

And yet: Fear of persecution can only be a rationalization. The real reason for the issuance of the EO is that the Palace has realized where the legitimacy wars will be fought in the coming months: in the halls of Congress, especially in the Senate.

In presenting the EO yesterday, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita hinted as much. "It seems that the impeachment issue is in the Senate without the benefit of … any impeachment complaint being brought before [it]. [But] there is no Chief Justice presiding over it."

Bunye’s own explanation reveals a breathtaking institutional contempt for a co-equal branch of government. "Our collective experience has shown that, with very few exceptions, these investigations [in aid of legislation] wasted taxpayers’ money, and served no other purpose than to damage the reputations of those who agree to appear and who are persecuted as though they are guilty of unsubstantiated charges," he said today. He added, pointedly, that the legislative inquiries had "not produced tangible benefits."

But unless the Constitution has already been replaced, it is not for the Executive to define what benefits, tangible or not, justify legislative inquiries. Whatever we may individually think of the real import or significance of these investigations (yes, many of them turn out to be venues for political grandstanding or point-scoring), they are guaranteed by the Constitution, as an integral part of the work of Congress.

The President has no business interfering with that guarantee.

Both chambers of Congress must immediately challenge the constitutionality of Executive Order 464, by filing a petition with the Supreme Court. Acting in concert, they will send a strong, unmistakable signal: They will not tolerate anyone playing God with the Constitution.

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Act of self-preservation

Despite Marine general Francisco Gudani’s obvious courage, the Armed Forces still did the right thing in relieving him. The top brass did not have a choice.

Or rather, and to appropriate Paul Ricoeur, they "consented to necessity." What was at stake was nothing less than the survival of the military as a viable institution. Lawyer Edwin Lacierda once brought up the idea of "self-preservation" (albeit in a different context), in a discussion on the role of the military in a democracy. (In two more comments prompted by Gudani’s testimony, he asks more trenchant questions.) What I believe Gen. Generoso Senga has done, in ordering both Gudani and Marine colonel Alexander Balutan relieved, was to "act in self-defense."

Without discipline, the military loses its organizational integrity. There is a reason, for example, why mind-numbing drills are basic to boot camp, or why the military salute is a central tradition: The military as an institution is based on complete assurance that, regardless of who occupies which link in the chain of command, orders will be followed. (Legal orders, one needs to add these days.) The chain of command is not a mere symbol, although many news stories use it as shorthand to refer to the decision-making process in the military; it is a real, living, thing.

To use an allusion that the devout Gudani may recognize: It is in the chain of command that soldiers live, and move, and have their being.

Breaking the chain, therefore, is an attack on the institution itself. It promotes indiscipline. (Imagine what would happen if, before a platoon launches a strike against insurgents, a few soldiers suddenly plead the promptings of conscience and refuse to fight.)  So Gudani may have done the right thing, personally, morally. But Senga, entrusted with the care and feeding (another New Testament allusion!) of the entire range of the country’s armed services,  did the right thing too.

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Act of conscience

Invoking his Christian faith, Marine general Francisco Gudani yesterday disobeyed a direct order (not from the President or the AFP Chief of Staff, as erroneously reported by some, but from his immediate superior, the Superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy), in order to follow a higher authority: His own conscience.

It is a praiseworthy act, but is he saint or sinner? I agree, up to a point, with Max Soliven’s sanguine take: "In this light, both Gudani and [Lt. Col. Alexander] Balutan took their chances in appearing to testify against President GMA in the Senate inquiry. Whether they turn out to be heroes or heels will depend on what happens next."

This isn’t merely pragmatism, although of course it is that too. It’s also highly moral. It’s the view of morality shared by the men and women of Gudani’s own faith: A decision is good or evil depending, in part, on its consequences. (See the spare definition of the sources of morality in Pope John Paul II’s lasting legacy, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

To be sure, some of the consequences of Gudani’s paradigm-shifting act will be unapologetically political; some will be quite morally neutral; a few others will involve, or at least depend upon, his own behavior. (We have to remember that "conscience" is a capacious word; even serial womanizer and high-stakes gambler Joseph Estrada could claim, with apparent sincerity, that his conscience was clean. I just hope, for Gudani’s many admirers, that he is a man of virtue as well, not merely a man of courage; I hope he is not one of those generals with unexplained millions, unlike, say, a general recently in the news, who it turns out spent a lot of money he could not possibly have to provide a daughter with an extravagant debut in an expensive hotel).

Politically, the consequences of Gudani’s act will depend on its impact on the Armed Forces or on the political scene. If his lonely decision leads in time to the chain of command adding its considerable weight to the movement to oust the President, or to the collapse of the Arroyo administration, he will be seen as a hero. If not, then officially (and I emphasize that word), he will be seen as having betrayed the institutional for the personal.

Morally, he has done the right thing. That was what his own faith asked of him, that he follow the dictates of a well-formed conscience. He has only been (if somewhat belatedly) consistent. But doing the right thing, by one’s own light, is its own reward.

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Send in the Marines

Just three quick points about the still ongoing hearing at the Senate.

1. The testimony of Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani marks a true turning point. The actual content of his testimony was rather limited in scope, having to do with election fraud in two provinces (or, if I heard right, actually only three municipalities). As he himself said, when he was offered a bribe, the amount was only "at the municipal level." (The Marine general meant P1.2 million.) His most dramatic assertions were stark indeed, but they are in the nature of hearsay; they must be corroborated. (These have to do, for example, with the First Gentleman personally bringing some P500 million in bribe money in two helicopter trips to the area.) But the mere fact that he and Col. Balutan decided to unburden their consciences, all the while invoking a higher loyalty to the chain of command, to the principle of civilian supremacy, and to "Constitution, God, and country," is stirring indeed — not least for other similarly situated officers and men in the Armed Forces. 

2. The questioning of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile about morale in the military was not in search of truth, but of confirmation. He began by telling Gudani he didn’t have to answer the question about morale. Then when Gudani said he could only speak from his position as Assistant Superintendent at the Philippine Military Academy, Enrile said "national interest" demanded Gudani’s candid answer. When Gudani said a group of cadets "think that the President is guilty," Enrile pressed on. Is their "disaffection" widespread in the Academy? When Gudani replied that only graduating cadets had "access to current events," Enrile concluded: So their disaffection is shared by all classes? When Gudani tried to nuance his answer, the former and long-time defense secretary then said: But that is why I ask this question about morale. Because what the cadets in the Academy think "reflect the Armed Forces." Does it now?

3. The hearing may have been called to investigate the wiretaps on the President, but it doesn’t take a degree in political science to know that the real target of the investigation was the President herself. That is why, as far as questions go, anything goes.

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We interrupt this program…

to bring you, not any two-bit bite of breaking news, but the very future of news. The other day, Yahoo! launched the Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone project

as its first endeavor in original multimedia newsgathering. We believe Kevin will bring to Yahoo! News users a unique perspective as he travels to conflict areas around the globe and sends back stories, photos, video and audio reports focused on the human element.

I used to think that "convergence" was something that will happen in combination newsrooms, at cross-functional super-desks, in the space between different groups of people with different sets of skills. Turns out convergence journalism is what a convergence journalist does.

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Minority report

I heard a report on radio this afternoon, about the plan of the House minority to reorganize its leadership. If I am not mistaken (I think I was otherwise engaged then in the contact sport called texting-while-driving), the report named Deputy Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano as the source, quoting him as saying that the minority was vacating its leadership posts to give Minority Leader Francis Escudero a free hand.

The ostensible reason, if I remember correctly, was to make way for the former administration allies who were about to formallyand finally switch sides. One of the examples given, however, was opposition maverick Imee Marcos giving up her coveted seat in the Commission on Appointments. That got me thinking.

Perhaps the real reason for the reshuffle is to encourage controversial pro-impeachment congressmen who suddenly made themselves scarce during the plenary vote to voluntarily give up their seats. Then those who actually voted for impeachment get a chance to sit as committee vice chairmen or minority representatives in such bodies as the CA and the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal.

Don’t get me wrong. Whatever the reason, I think this is as it should be. That is, a reshuffle after crucial tests of will in parliament is not only inevitable but necessary. It is a rite of transition, for both sides of the aisle.

To be sure, Rep. Jacinto Paras jumped the gun on his fellow members in the minority, when a few days after they lost the impeachment vote in plenary, he called on Escudero to resign. (Paras, of course, was one of the three who contested the position of House Minority Leader in July 2004; the others were Escudero and Ronaldo Zamora.) But whether Escudero will or should go, for leading a failed charge, is a question his own allies have to answer.

His own partymate, Rep. Gilbert Teodoro of Tarlac, had already set a defining example; after leading the Nationalist Peoples’ Coalition in the failed attempt to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide in 2003, he resigned as party chief. Whether he actually let go of the reins of power in the party his favorite uncle built, is of course cocktail-circuit chatter.

This is the parliamentary practice in other countries too. (No, I don’t mean the cocktail circuit.)  The leader of the main opposition party in Japan, for instance, resigned his post after Prime Minister Koizumi called early elections and then routed rival parties. It is a practice that makes sense, because extraordinary legislative initiatives like an impeachment drive then become more costly, more fraught with personal risk. That, in turn, helps ensure that crucial tests of political will like impeachment are undertaken with the seriousness they deserve.

Of course, all this is now by-the-by. The center of political gravity has shifted from the House to the Senate.

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Timebound

The latest news from Pulse Asia quickens the, ah, pulse. A solid majority of Filipinos has resoundingly rejected any repeat of martial law: "nearly seven in 10 Filipinos (67 percent) do not see the need to impose martial law despite the many political and economic problems plaguing the country at the moment."

Only one caveat: That particular "moment" was two months (and one impeachment initiative) ago. The survey was conducted from July 2 to 14, way before Congress threw out the impeachment complaints against the President, and before Ermita and then GMA unsheathed the sword of calibrated preemptive response.

In fact, the news about the public’s "latest" sentiment regarding military rule already came out in the papers (in August, I think).

Nothing wrong with a survey firm re-releasing previous results in a timely fashion, of course. But we must realize that the results are time-bound too. It may well be that public opposition to strong-arm tactics has risen since then; but to be completely fair, it is also incumbent on us to consider another possibility: that it has gone down since. Two months is a long time in politics.

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My Precious

On to important nonsense: I found out about Precious Lara Quigaman winning the Miss International title when I happened to check the news online at about five this morning. But what really caught my eye was the first sentence in this paragraph:

She is currently a webwriter. She graduated with a degree in Media Production and Communications at Filton College in the United Kingdom. She also took up Bachelor of Arts in Childhood and Youth Studies at Bristol University.

That should be a first, right? Beauty and the Web. Very 21st century.

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Symbolic logic

In a sense, Malacanang only has itself to blame for the newly revived specter of martial rule.

It was last week, on the very anniversary of Proclamation 1081, that Executive Secretary (and former general) Ed Ermita chose to announce the new get-tough policy on street demonstrations. (Or perhaps the better preposition is "against"?) For quite a number of people, the timing already constituted proof positive.

That day or the day after, I happened to be reading a passage in Brian Magee’s bracing memoirs about the use of metaphor in argument. We do it all the time, of course; I certainly do. In a disconcerting way, it can be quite effective. The problem that the philosopher-broadcaster-writer-member-of-parliament wanted to solve was whether metaphor, which has its own logic, can be validly used in argument. (The full answer, if I am not mistaken, may be found in Chaim Perelman’s one-of-a-kind classic on argumentation, a copy of which Dean Mariano lent me to read about 10 years ago.)

The point? It occurred to me last week that, because of the very nature of argumentation, the coincidence of anniversary and announcement was a powerful "proof." Symbols talk; that’s how people think. It was thus a mistake for Ermita to announce the new policy of calibrated preemptive response (even the cadence is Marcosian, reminding us of Presidential Commitment Orders and the like) on the day that he did. (Of course, the new policy itself is a mistake, a grievous one.)

Because he made the announcement on September 21, many people were persuaded that another "September 21" was in the offing. Strictly speaking, of course, the logic doesn’t follow. But in terms of the challenge of persuasion, the symbol had a logic of its own.

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Plugging the loophole

The joint vote provision that allows a simple majority of both houses of Congress to override a presidential declaration of martial law must have been designed to make it easier to prevent a new Marcos. I suppose the idea (proposed, the ever-relevant Edwin Lacierda tells us, by Constitutional Commissioner Joaquin Bernas) was to allow Congress to act even if — either because of invasion or rebellion or "public safety" concerns — a considerable number of lawmakers won’t be able to (or find themselves suddenly unable to) make it to the crucial joint session. Lowering the bar would strengthen the hand of Congress, helping prevent a repeat of 1972.

The provision becomes a loophole only if, in the hands of a master parliamentarian, an acquiescent Congress votes to extend the declaration, by a simple majority of both houses combined.

But all this, I take pains to point out, is all quite theoretical.

I am not convinced that martial law will in fact be declared. It doesn’t make political sense, because of both military and economic factors. Giving a restive military a greater role would be like riding a hungry tiger; the President would find it unmanageable. And certain economic indicators may well flat-line. There is a difference between wanting protesters out of the streets and removing the right to protest in the first place, and it is a difference even big business can tell.

Of course, it is important to remember that, in politics as well as in other aspects of life, reason does not always carry the day. Hubris, or the presidential swagger that Press Secretary Toting Bunye had to explain away in yesterday’s news briefing, can lead to a fatal miscalculation.

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A surprise

Several things kept me away from the computer in the last 24 hours; you can imagine my surprise, then, to see on my return that an unfortunate word war had erupted between two of the very readers I "write" for. Unfortunate, because Jojo in Kyoto and Mylene in Davao may actually have more things in common than, well, it seems to be possible at the moment.

Perhaps they would have hit if off if circumstances had been otherwise.

(I used inverted commas above because all I meant by the word write was that I keep a blog.)

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A question for lawyers

I have no reason to believe that a declaration of martial law is imminent, if only because the constitutional provisions for any such declaration have made it harder for any President to push the decision through the political process.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez may well have spoken the (political) truth, when he told the Inquirer yesterday:

"You cannot declare martial law without the support of Congress. It will be crazy for the President to declare martial law when we know that Congress does not approve of it, what with the present climate in the Senate."

He then added:

"That is not feasible. The government is not naive, not crazy, to do something like that, knowing that it will be rebuffed immediately. It will be more embarrassing for us, and the more the President will lose face. It will further erode whatever remains of [public] confidence in her."

It seems so straightforward, doesn’t it? But a quick check with the Constitution suddenly made me uneasy.

The martial law power is found in the "commander-in-chief" provision (Article VII, Section 18). The first paragraph reads, in part:

Within forty-eight hours from the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, the President shall submit a report in person or in writing to the Congress. The Congress, voting jointly, by a vote of at least a majority of all its Members in regular or special session, may revoke such proclamation or suspension, which revocation shall not be set aside by the President. Upon the initiative of the President, the Congress may, in the same manner, extend such proclamation or suspension for a period to be determined by the Congress, if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it.

What caught my eye was the central phrase: "voting jointly."

The manner of voting, however, in the "declaration of war" provision (Article VI, Section 23, Paragraph 1), is phrased differently:

The Congress, by a vote of two-thirds of both Houses in joint session assembled, voting separately, shall have the sole power to declare the existence of a state of war.

"Voting separately" — that is how I remember the manner of voting described in the article on constitutional revisions (as it turns out, there is no such limiting phrase). But what did the framers mean when they chose a different manner of voting to revoke or confirm a declaration of martial law?

Does that mean that a JDV-dominated Congress can, without real need of the Senate (because of the joint-vote provision), extend a martial law proclamation or a suspension of the writ all by itself? If that were the case, then JDV’s allies wouldn’t even need to muster a three-fourths vote (as they need to do in the case of constitutional revisions); a "simple majority" (of 236 congressmen plus 23 senators) would do.

There are other reasons why I think no such declaration is imminent (not least of which is the belief that the military will prove recalcitrant), but for the purposes of discussion, can someone tell me whether the "voting jointly" clause is in fact one big, fat loophole?

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Essential, contingent

A couple of items, that may make for provocative weekend reading.

It had never occurred to me, a mere consumer of classical music, to think of Beethoven as other than the Romantic icon, the tortured genius who wrote incomparable music.  But what do I know? An article in the Guardian says Beethoven was a turning point in music, but a turn for the worse.

Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.

Of Sartre and his post-modern arrangement with Simone de Beauvoir, I had of course heard many things, but apparently, truth is really stranger than fiction. Louis Menand, the resident iconoclast at the New Yorker (see his grumpy putdown of Lynne Truss’ "strange grammar"), shatters another hallowed image (actually, two of them) in his bludgeoning of the French philosophers’ "strange liaison."

Sartre proposed a “pact”: they could have affairs, but they were required to tell each other everything. As he put it to Beauvoir: “What we have is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.”

Hey! How come this philosophy major was never taught that particular lesson in, ah, applied philosophy?

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Hard line

All wrong. The President seems to have mistaken her political victory in the House, which threw out the impeachment complaints against her, and her diplomatic victory at the United Nations, where she, ah, wore red instead of blue, for a mandate to clamp down on the opposition.

Yesterday, speaking like the stern schoolmistress she used to be, she told an assembly of Pampanga barangay officials that she was "tired of chasing the bully around the schoolyard." Then she read the bully the riot act:

"Those who will accept my call for unity, they’re welcome. But those who won’t and would continue to disrupt government, we, from the top to the barangay officials, will enforce the rule of law," she said to warm applause and cheers at the Expo Pilipino’s Freedom Ring.

There is no question that some of the acts of the political opposition (which by now means also those who want her out of Malacanang) have been quite disruptive; some have even been distinctly juvenile. (Cue Rep. Jacinto Paras, shouting "Mr. Speaker!" into the House microphone.) But none of this makes the opposition the bully in the schoolyard.

In fact, in the eyes of the opposition, it is the President herself who is the real bully: taking away someone’s lunch, throwing dirt in someone’s face, getting one’s self elected head of the class by intimidating some classmates and buying the sympathy of others. Her "rule of law," coming the day after Executive Secretary Ed Ermita launched the new "calibrated preemptive response" policy to control public demonstrations, is further proof of her bullying. The new "get tough" policy is based on a bully’s attitude: I don’t like it, so it must stop.

This is all wrong. The President, contrary to what she thought she had won in crucial tests of will this month, does not have the luxury of time; slowly, steadily, and despite a hapless opposition, the crisis of legitimacy that still haunts her has continued to erode her capacity to govern. She has less and less room to maneuver; some of her closest allies seem to be losing patience with her (consider the fact, for example, that the contempt citation against National Security Adviser Bert Gonzales was supported by 15 senators, crossing party lines). She may have until July, before the inevitable avalanche of impeachment complaints comes crashing on her; perhaps at most, she has until the mid-term elections in 2007, when — if present trends continue — she will probably confront a new Congress made up of a majority elected to office specifically to impeach her. 

But what her "bully in the schoolyard" speech has done has been to accelerate the pace of political developments. It will radicalize even those who had no previous intention to take to the streets. It will confirm fears of a "creeping martial law." Not least, it will narrow her options for dealing with the opposition, needlessly, dangerously.

It’s like a schoolboy going to class with a balisong, maybe because he likes the feel, the comfort of steel, that the switchblade provides. He may have no intention of using it, but when the inevitable fight at the back of the building happens, he may have no choice but to bring it out. Then you have blood in the schoolyard.

"Maximum tolerance" was not only pro-democracy; it was also good politics, because it allowed the authorities an enormous amount of room to maneuver. GMA’s "rule of law," or Ermita’s "calibrated preemptive response," drastically limits the democratic space; it is also terrible politics, because it commits the authorities to a certain course of action regardless of the circumstances.

What were they thinking?

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The new plan of attack

Sen. Joker Arroyo may not have known it, but by calling for an investigation into the Venable contract, he has effectively shifted the center of gravity, in the President’s continuing crisis of legitimacy, from the House to the Senate.

The answer many senators wanted to hear yesterday (including Senate President Franklin Drilon, once one of the President’s closest allies, now her most senior political enemy) was the answer they didn’t get: They wanted National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales to follow the money all the way back to the President. [Here’s another link to the Watergate scandal that made the phrase famous.]

(Incidentally, this is partly why I found the threat to use the contempt power rather unseemly; instead of being used for coercive purposes, it was deployed, or so it seemed to me, for punitive reasons. It seemed to me that some senators actually wanted to punish him, I suppose for his lack of temerity in blaming the President.)

Yesterday’s hearing was the first to be conducted since the impeachment case against President Arroyo was thrown out of Congress. But in the intervening two weeks, the positions of some of the senators seemed to have only hardened. Thus, the actively hostile questioning of a Cabinet member   — precisely because he was a stand-in for the President.

We should expect more of the same: More Senate investigations, more Cabinet (or ex-Cabinet) members on the dock, more political heat for the President. Last week, she told businessmen in New York that she had arrived for the UN Security Council summit "with the wind at her back." Turns out it was only the heat from the country’s political furnace, turned up a notch or two. 

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Damning lack of counsel

No doubt about it. Norberto Gonzales’s turn on the Senate Blue Ribbon hot seat was catastrophic. The National Security Adviser must have known he would be asked, among many other questions, three of fundamental import: what kind of authority did he have to sign the Venable contract? Who was to pay for the contract? And, Has the contract in fact been paid? If he didn’t have the answers, he should have avoided the hearing altogether. In time he would have been cited for contempt, because the Constitution provides that even Cabinet members can be summoned before a congressional panel, but at least he would not have proven conclusively, and for all to see, that a background in underground work and cloak-and-dagger operations does not necessarily qualify one to be director of the National Security Council.

The contract is indefensible, but one would have thought it was possible to say so without necessarily disqualifying one’s self from the office one holds. But now, on that point, no one has any doubt.

And yet, there is (at least for me) a sense of unease that lingers. Something about yesterday’s proceedings does not seem to be quite right. I am not merely referring to the patently hostile questioning of such moral exemplars as, say, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada. I mean the unsettling way the power to cite for contempt was first hinted at, and then eventually invoked.

I know; it is well-settled doctrine that Congress has the coercive power to cite a "contumacious" witness for contempt. (I found the link to the famous court decision that laid down the law, Arnault v. Nazareno, via La Vida Lawyer.)  But a Cabinet member is no mere witness. Yes, he must be treated like any other witness, but did anyone in yesterday’s hearing forget for an instant that the Cabinet member on the dock was, in national-security matters, the President’s very alter ego?

As I understand it, the power of any chamber of Congress to conduct a legislative inquiry (from which the contempt power derives) is not an absolute one. It is subject to three limitations, as outlined in the Constitution itself: It must be "in aid of legislation," "in accordance with its duly published rules of procedures," and respectful of the "rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquires."

According to the Senate’s own rules, a witness appearing before a committee has four grounds for refusing to answer questions. Gonzales, if he had consulted a lawyer, could have invoked either the third [for national security or executive privilege reasons] or the fourth:

(3) He may rely on the privilege as to confidential communication; or

(4) He may refuse to answer on the ground that his testimony, though not exposing him to criminal prosecution, tends to disgrace him;

At the very least he would have laid the basis for a legal challenge to his detention, adding his status as an alter ego of the head of a coordinate branch of government for good measure. But as in the case of the Venable contract itself, he failed to seek legal counsel. And that, fall guy or not, is why he is in deeper voodoo today than he was yesterday.

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A moment of truth

I caught only a small part of yesterday afternoon’s Senate Blue Ribbon probe into the Venable contract, but judging from the news clips I saw later at night, it may well have been the most revealing moment.  Inadvertently revealing, that is.

At one point in the hearing, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales Jr. tried to divert the senators’ attention away from the controversial contract and toward the even more controversial FBI files, the ones allegedly downloaded from the computer network on a US military base. Some of the confidential documents included detailed US embassy readings of the Philippine political situation.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, the committee chair, chided Gonzales for bringing the matter up, and out of context as it were. Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. would know this, Arroyo said, but when we were in the anti-Marcos struggle, in the opposition, we also got assurances from the US embassy that they would help us. But those were during the Martial Law days, Arroyo continued. The conditions (for needing US support) have changed.

Then Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile butted in. May I just state for the record, said the administrator of Martial Law and (towards the end of Marcos rule) the guiding spirit of the military reform movement, that we never talked to the Americans. We (meaning the military reformists who finally launched a coup against the dictator) never asked for US support.

From what I understand, Enrile was being stingy with the truth. Or perhaps he was referring to later coup attempts by military reformists, not the first, failed, one that led to Edsa I. Who knows? But the reality is: 33 years to the day Martial Law was declared, its legacy continues to haunt us.

In yesterday’s hearing, Enrile, Arroyo, and Pimentel — members of Cory Aquino’s first Cabinet, in their own way and in varying degrees responsible for the fall of Marcos — sat on one side. Gonzales, another leading member of the original anti-Marcos opposition, sat on the other. Between them the elephant in the room slumbered; I mean the still troubling, troubled issue of Marcos’s real legacy: a fractious, maybe ultimately ungovernable, polity.

He had corrupted Philippine society to such an unimaginable degree that we continue today to labor under the burden he placed on us: a crippling debt, a military that has had a taste of life outside the barracks, scorched-earth politics. Worse, he has shown us, even in death, that crime does pay, that the real purpose of Goebbels’ Big Lie (at which he was a past master) is in fact Big Crime. (The rule of law is for petty criminals, and those with insufficient connections.)

That particular exchange in the Senate yesterday, between the administrator of Martial Law and the first lawyer to question the legal basis of military rule, turned out, inadvertently, to be a  moment of truth. The truth why our politics continues to be rancorous and divisive is the lack of resolution in, and clear responsibility for, our recent history. We have yet to fully come to terms with the dictatorship and  its life-denying legacy.

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Eating ground glass

We’ve all heard it before: It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. (I thought that was another of Churchill’s famous remarks; turns out, or so this site says, it was actually Niels Bohr, which of course makes sense in a quantum sort of way.) I was reminded of this simple truth when I heard over the radio this morning a Deutsche Welle report about Angela Merkel’s continuing parliamentary adventure. (I believe Manolo Quezon was first to draw attention to it, in our corner of the so-called blogosphere.)

I checked the DW website: Merkel was confirmed as leader of the Christian Democrats despite losing a 20-point lead in the polls. "Following an hour-long meeting with members of her own Christian Democratic Union and the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, Merkel was confirmed as parliamentary leader with 98.6 percent of the vote."

The website story continued: "Berlin had been abuzz with speculation about what would happen to Merkel, who lead [sic] the Union parties to one of their worst federal election showings in postwar history on Sunday. Some observers questioned whether the 51-year-old party leader would have the necessary support to stake her claim as chancellor of Germany’s next government."

CNN had retailed that speculative buzz, through the dispatches of its European political editor Robin Oakley. Yesterday, I caught one of his reports, where he predicted that, because of the party’s unexpectedly poor finish, Merkel was unlikely to get more than the 93 percent she had received in a previous party vote.

The latest CNN story online summed up the background: "Analysts say Merkel must shore up support in her own party after a disappointing campaign." I do not recall Oakley making that distinction in his report, that it was other people’s analyses. I may simply have remembered it wrong, but I think Oakley presented the analysis as his own. (I suppose that’s what "political editors" do.) Nothing wrong with that. Except that he turned out to be wrong. And that CNN’s latest story online fudges his mistake. The very next paragraph reads: "She made progress towards that goal Tuesday by winning overwhelming backing from her party to continue as parliamentary leader."

Progress toward that goal? If Merkel’s goal is, as the CNN story itself puts it, "shoring up support in her own party," winning 98.6 percent of the party vote cannot be described merely as "progress toward" the goal. The goal has been achieved.

Of course, the real question is: Why would analysts necessarily think that Merkel would win less than 93 percent of the party vote? I mean, yes, it makes sense for us on the outside, for journalists and others of our ilk, to speculate that a party leader who did not do as well as expected may lose ground among the party faithful. But politics has its own rules, chief of which (or so I think) is winning political power.

For the first time in seven years, the Christian Democrats have a chance to emerge from the federal wilderness; why would they undermine their own chances of forming a coalition government, right when negotiations are most intense, by handing their rivals a symbolic loss? 

As far as I can recall, I did not hear or see or read a single report which raised the possibility that Merkel would actually emerge from the party vote stronger, rather than weaker. Perhaps a herd mentality marked the reporting?

The lead of the DW web story suggests as much: "The knives are back in their sheaths. The overwhelming support for Angela Merkel from her own party has defused speculation that she doesn’t have the backing to become Germany’s next chancellor."

In other words, the media may have focused on political intrigue, which of course is the more dramatic story, rather than the actual arithmetic of politics, which tends to induce sleep.

Of course, in the aftermath (no pun intended), another forecasting quote recommends itself: "He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass." You could look it up.

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Yanking the chain

Two recent posts, both related to the role the military and its chain of command play in democratic politics, have provoked some spirited and thought-provoking comments of their own, from Edwin Lacierda, Manuel Buencamino, Glenn Omanio, Erwin Rafael, and Jojo Abinales. I have just replied, at some length, to the latest entries: here, about Randy David’s unexpected praise of coup plotters past, and here, about civilian supremacy. If you think we’ve missed certain, perhaps even vital, points, please pull up a chair and join the conversation.

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All Garci, all the time

Whenever I happen to be driving in mid-afternoon, I listen to Joel Reyes Zobel, one of the more (or should I say few?) thoughtful radio anchors around. Yesterday, I heard him raise an interesting point.

He blamed the Venable contract, which sought to source US support for constitutional change in the Philippines, directly on the Garcillano scandal. "Kung hindi nag-hello si GMA kay Garci," I distinctly remember him saying, there would have been no Venable contract in the first place. Why? Because the President embraced constitutional change only as a last-ditch effort to save herself, to give her what ex-President Ramos and Speaker de Venecia, the leading proponents of an amended constitution, call a "graceful exit."

It still isn’t clear exactly when the National Security Adviser, Norberto Gonzales Jr., started negotiating with Venable, but it does seem very likely that that partly shaded green light he said the President had given him occurred sometime during the seven or so weeks before the State of the Nation Address (the day he signed the now-rescinded contract). Zobel’s point remains conjecture, but I think it is a profitable one.

This is what the leaders of the political opposition should keep reminding themselves: A hundred days after the Garcillano scandal first surfaced, the real issue is still Garcillano. It is good that even Rep. Francis Escudero now admits that the impeachment cases filed in June and July against the President were now "procedurally dead." This should enable the opposition to drop the Lozano complaints for the brittle deadwood they are, and to look for a new, stronger lever with which to prise GMA out of Malacanang.

That lever, as Zobel reminded me, lies in deconstructing Garci: the tapes, the election fraud they point ineluctably to, the cover-up they set in motion.

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Telling our story

Boying Pimentel of the San Francisco Chronicle had a simple idea: Why not use podcasting technology and the resources of blogs to allow fellow Filipinos to tell the story of the Filipino experience — in our own words? His Kuwento, Kuwento went up only this month, but (and this is a measure of the power, the sheer inevitability, of the idea) already it seems like an essential site. His latest podcast is the first part of a conversation with top journalist (and defense expert) Glenda Gloria, about "the day the flowers came."

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Our man at the Vatican

I have always been impressed by John Allen’s reporting. The National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent not only enjoys a high level of access to the suites and cubbyholes that mark the Roman Curia; he also goes out of his way to build access to important Church sources who do not work in the Vatican. I have also always found him to be scrupulously honest in presenting the many views that circulate inside the church. As a result, or at least when I read him, I get the sense of a truly global and unexpectedly active church — not a monolith, but a living, thriving mix of dynamism and unavoidable inertia.

If this is your cup of holy tea, a visit to his well-read online column, updated every other week, may well be worth it. Even if read on days other than Sunday.

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Revising history

More on the same subject, about the military’s vexing role in a rambunctious democracy.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an "unexpectedly disturbing" column by the eminent Randy David. I have made no secret about my esteem for the leading sociologist; like many others, I entertain the hope that he would write more often for my paper’s opinion pages. I have found his writing both learned and on-the-ground practical, essential reading in these parlous times. But his column of August 28 was profoundly upsetting.

In it, he praised the young who had taken the lead in the impeachment drive against the President. And then, in a fatal leap of misplaced faith, he wrote this:

Seven military coup attempts challenged the foundations of President Cory Aquino’s people-power regime. Those of us who had fought Ferdinand Marcos and joined the Edsa People Power revolution could only see in these attempted coups the hand of military adventurism. We did not hesitate to defend what we perceived to be the democratic gains of Edsa. But looking back now, and after having met young officers like Capt. Rene Jarque, who has died "without seeing the dawn," so to speak, I am convinced we were wrong to dismiss these coups as mere power grabs. The major ones of these coups were led by young officers who stood for genuine social change, and saw no other way of achieving it than by seizing state power. Young people in the military saw what the return of the old was doing to their own organization. They saw how the same politicians were reversing with impunity the spirit of renewal that Edsa had embodied for them. They could not bear to see all this and do nothing.

Let me borrow a useful conceit from literary criticism: David’s second look at recent history is a disturbing distortion, because it depends uncritically on the intentional fallacy. It mistakes the intention of some of the coup plotters for the reality of the coup they plotted.

There is no doubt that some, or perhaps even many, of the officers and men who joined the August 1987 and December 1989 coup attempts ("the major ones") were motivated by a sincere desire for "genuine social change." That fact, however, does not make the attempted coups themselves any less a power grab.

The object, in both instances, was to seize state power. That object was justified in the name of military reform (for some) and social change (for some others). But it was an object that first emerged during the bleakest years of the dictatorship. Thus, after democratic institutions were restored, the conditions for the seizure of state power had already changed. But the masterminds, the main coup plotters, thought otherwise.

David scores what "the return of the old [political traditions]" did to the military in the late   1980s. He also blames the politicians for reversing "the spirit of renewal that Edsa had embodied for them [that is, the military reformists]." These two assertions of fact imply that, if the renewal of democratic institutions had continued apace, the reformers in the military would not have attempted a coup.

I think this is a sad misreading of the true historical situation. The true leaders of the military reform movement wanted to seize power in February 1986; it was because Marcos preempted them that they found themselves holed up in Camp Aguinaldo. In other words, the military roots of the first flourish of People Power actually lay in a failed coup (the first, we note, in a long series of failed attempts).

After Edsa I, the true leaders found themselves increasingly out-of-place in a democratic set-up, like born-and-bred military fish out of roiling democratic water. And not just any kind of fish: They were spoiled fish, raised at a time when the military took an active part in running the country. It was natural for the likes of Honasan to see themselves as national albeit still-obscure leaders, favored by the gods of inevitability. It was only a matter of time before this once and future ruling class would attempt, again, to seize power for themselves.

The notion that this class had stepped aside after Edsa I, but at some time could no longer bear "to see all this and do nothing," is revisionist history. It may be motivated by a deeper appreciation for the nuances that led bright young men to launch destructive coups, but it is still revisionism.

The true leaders of the coups took advantage of their men’s sense of idealism. For them, the spirit of Edsa was not renewal, but interruption. That is why, even till now, personalities like Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile insist that the true anniversary of Edsa I is not February 25, when Marcos fled, but February 22, when the reformists first rose in arms. So much for idealism.

Surely there are other ways to praise the youthfulness and idealism of the political opposition, without turning yesterday’s coup plotters into today’s harmless do-gooders.

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Chain of command

In the two or so months I’ve kept a blog, I’ve learned to rely on the judgment of a few fellow travelers. Lawyer Edwin Lacierda is one of them. His latest posting, however, has unsettled me deeply. If I read "Commander-in-Chief"  correctly, he is saying "the military" has the right to object collectively to the designation of Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan as commanding general of the Armed Forces’ largest area command. Moreover, he is saying that that "right" is based on the natural law of self-preservation.

Because we often share similar views, I regret to say that I cannot agree with him on this one. In fact, it pains me to say that his argument, if pursued to its logical end, puts the democratic project itself at risk. That, at least, is my view; let me explain why.

Let me begin by pointing out that the question Edwin leads off with is a complex one.

Under what constitutional authority did the President [act when she] refused the recommendation of the Board of Generals to appoint the eminently qualified General Samuel Bagasin to head the Southern Command and instead appointed General Edilberto Adan who never handled a division.

It is a loaded question, because certain crucial facts are assumed. One, that Bagasin, the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, based in Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro, is eminently qualified for SouthCom. Two, that only division commanders are qualified to head area commands. And three, that refusing the recommendation of the BoG is an extraordinary act, requiring a return to constitutional sources.

Edwin then phrases the problem facing the Armed Forces in this wise: "do the officers and men of the Armed Forces just grin and bear [it] when their professionalism appears threatened?"

My own answer to that is: Why, Yes — if we assume that the next step beyond grin-and-bear is turn-against-the-commander-in-chief.  Let’s face it: "appears" is too iffy to justify anything other than recourse to the usual grievance process. But if what we mean is for aggrieved officers and men to course their grievances through the appropriate channels, then the answer, of course, is No.

But I’m afraid that Edwin’s argument, in full, is ultimately based on the first assumption: Our officers and men shoudn’t just grin and bear it; they should in fact challenge the President’s authority as commander-in-chief. Edwin couches his argument in legal terms:

I think the answer lies beyond a mere restatement of the cited constitutional provisions and demands a conceptual overhauling of the constitutional thinking and interpretation of the commander-in-chief clause.

He then proceeds to an enlightening discussion of the roots of the constitutional provisions, comparing ours with those of the American charter. But somehow, Edwin fails to consider the fundamental rationale of the commander-in-chief provision itself: The reason such an awesome power is vested in the head of government is because we follow the hallowed principle of civilian supremacy over the military.

That principle, I maintain, is central to the democratic experience.

Edwin argues that

when the commander-in-chief clause is invoked, it always refers to the president’s use of military forces to perform a public good when a danger is clear and present or to conduct military campaigns and hostilities towards enemies of the state to preserve the integrity of the national territory

I would think that he is right, up to a point, but what he has actually done is to give some examples of what the President can do as commander-in-chief. That list of examples cannot be exhaustive, because the principle of civilian supremacy over the military means just what it says: A civilian is in command of the Armed Forces. (And yes, even tactically, if the precedents set by Abraham Lincoln are any guide.)

At this point, Edwin refines his original problem, to one of the "arbitrary" use of the commander-in-chief provision.

does the commander-in-chief clause likewise extend to arbitrary decisions of appointing a fellow not recommended by the professional Board of Generals on the basis of political expediency?

Again, my own answer would be: Yes.

I do not know the full story of the latest appointment snafu. On the face of it, the President’s confusing decisions do seem to be political. But "political expediency" cuts both ways. If it is true that Bagasing’s recommendation was withdrawn because another division commander wanted the job, it is also true that the appointment of Adan, the AFP’s third-highest general, is effectively a demotion (SouthCom commanders only wear two stars). (You see, as with any organization, there is politics inside the military too, as any officer will attest.) In other words, and if earlier news reports are true, the final decision was to not choose  the one who wanted it most. A political compromise in a professional organization? Certainly. An arbitrary decision? Probably. But a reason to invite the Armed Forces to turn against the President? Hardly.

Let’s backtrack a bit: Does Edwin in fact suggest that the Armed Forces challenge the President on this decision, even to the point of turning against her? It may only be me, but that is the only way I can read his ringing conclusion.

Thus, if the president acts in a manner totally alien and beneath the standards of professionalism required under the mandates of the armed forces as well as the 1987 Constitution, does the military have the right to act in self-defense to protect its own integrity and eventual survival? Like any juridical or natural entity following the immutable laws of nature which man-made deeds like the constitution must abide by, the inevitable answer must be a yes. Adherence to authority is one thing but blind adherence is what has already been proscribed in the Nuremberg Principles and should find no basis in a professional army.

Now what else can that mean? I read Edwin to say that Adan’s appointment is inimical to the very "integrity and eventual survival" of the Armed Forces, and that a professional army such as ours should not display "blind adherence" to the President’s controversial decision. Therefore …

I found myself greatly disturbed by this reasoning, because it appears to be an encouragement to anyone in the military aggrieved by the latest controversy to take on the President — and thus the very principle of civilian supremacy — directly.

It cannot be. Regardless of our own views of the President, it cannot be. A professional army must take the good with the bad; to even suggest otherwise, to hint that soldiers are free to disregard orders they regard as political or arbitrary or inimical, is to attack the very sense of professionalism that makes the military.

In a democratic setting, that sense is informed by the principle of civilian supremacy. If a soldier, or an officer, feels aggrieved by a particular order, the solution is not to undermine the chain of command; it is to work through it, or to step outside it.

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