Monthly Archives: June 2006

The New York Times? What’s that?

That may be the new line from the Palace, once the administration gets its hands on yesterday’s editorial ("Unimpeachable logic") in the Wall Street Journal. The Times had famously run a stinging editorial last April attacking President Arroyo for "undermining a hard-won democracy." (The Times version is here, but apparently it is now behind the online gates; the version in the IHT, however, is still accessible here.) The editorial got the President’s goat (but I must say Resty Odon’s curt, curmudgeonly  take on the whole NYT-is-writing-about-the-Philippines issue was spot on).

Yesterday’s WSJ editorial, however, should erase a few creases from the Palace smile. (The article is behind a subscribers-only wall.) It isn’t one of the Journal’s better pieces: The second paragraph has a yawning grammatical lapse (a confusion in tenses) and, worse, a glaring factual error (a confusion in the number of impeachment complaints filed last year). The second-to-the-last paragraph also asserts a doubtful proposition. But that won’t stop the Palace from going to town and dining out for days on the WSJ’s vote of confidence.

Still, the opposition parties want more — although it’s unclear what, exactly, that is. All that they seem to advocate is Ms. Arroyo’s swift removal, which would imply that — in the short term, at least — Vice President Noli de Castro, a former television broadcaster, would assume the presidency. After that, who knows — the opposition parties don’t boast a strong leader, either.

The editorial’s entire thesis is summed up in its last sentence:

If Manila’s politicians could stop squabbling long enough, they’d realize that there are bigger things to worry about.

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Not worthy of this beautiful view

I have family in Vancouver, but it’s a place I haven’t been to yet, and truth to tell it’s a place that does not loom large in my imagination. Of course it would be nice to drop by, and especially to play catch-up. But Vancouver itself does not beckon to me, unlike certain towns or cities.

I guess it’s because I had not read about it; it had not figured in my reading. This simple truth came home to me today, after I read — and reread — David Laskin’s wonderful piece on Alice Munro’s "storybook Vancouver."

In Alice Munro’s Vancouver nobody eats sushi. Nobody jogs along the sea wall or browses Granville Street galleries or shops for organic herbs at the Granville Island market. Munro, the 74-year-old Canadian whom the novelist Jonathan Franzen dubbed "the best fiction writer now working in North America," set a handful of her marvelous short stories in the damp British Columbian metropolis, and the urban geography is so exact you can practically map the city off her fictions.

But Munro’s fictions did not make too much of Vancouver’s "beautiful view." Indeed, if Laskin is right, she felt oppressed by it. And yet the city, faithfully recorded, lives on in her delicate pages.

"These women aren’t so much older than Kath and Sonje. But they’ve reached a stage in life that Kath and Sonje dread. They turn the whole beach into a platform. Their burdens, their strung-out progeny and maternal poundage, their authority, can annihilate the bright water, the perfect small cove with the red-limbed arbutus trees, the cedars, growing crookedly out of the high rocks. Kath feels their threat particularly, since she’s a mother now herself. When she nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as not to sink into a sludge of animal functions."

This is pure Munro: the social anxiety, the fusing of insecurity and disdain, the heavy tug of ordinary life, the way dread can rise and spread until it erases everything lovely. "She’s always dead on," Sheila Munro says when I ask if the descriptions of places ring true to her childhood memories. And yet it strikes me when I walk out on Ambleside pier that Munro has neglected to mention this stupendous setting – the echoing curves of bridge and cove and mountain, the dull silver of the sea, the green- black hump of Stanley Park, all this grandeur of land and water so close it is as if the great northern wilderness laps at the city’s feet.

But Munro was always oppressed, almost crushed by Vancouver’s fabled vistas. In the story "Memorial," also set in West Vancouver, a character named Eileen challenges a wealthy foolish man who boasts about his water and mountain view.

"Well suppose you’re in a low mood, and you get up and here spread out before you is this magnificent view. All the time, you can’t get away from it. Don’t you ever feel not up to it?"

"Not up to it?"

"Guilty," said Eileen, persistently though regretfully. "That you’re not in a better mood? That you’re not more – worthy, of this beautiful view?"

All of a sudden, Vancouver is a must-go-to place, and Munro a must-read writer.

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Undiplomatic license

I find this bit of news worrying.  I had reservations about Albert del Rosario’s appointment as Ambassador to Washington in October 2001, but (like my reservations about Avelino Cruz’s appointment as Defense Secretary) these were eased and then obliterated by his performance in office. The difference in the language used (Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye saying the President had accepted Del Rosario’s resignation with regrets, others saying he had in fact been recalled) is ominous. Of course, Max Soliven has written about the changes in DC more than once before. I’m afraid politics has trumped performance, once again.

PS. Del Rosario was gracious enough to receive me when I called on him at the embassy last year, and on such short notice. (I had help from a good friend.) We spoke about a number of things, of course, but for some reason I most remember a conversation about Frank Ephraim, the Jewish refugee who escaped the Nazis by immigrating to the Philippines during World War II when he was nine years old, and who had written Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror. I had just come from Frank’s house in Maryland, for a second interview. By then Del Rosario had come to know Frank very well, and it was good to hear another man’s impressions about a subject I had just met, face to face, for the first time.

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All Zarqawi, all the time

After the air strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, comes the inevitable downpour of analytical stories. Here’s one from the Washington Post.

Until he was killed Wednesday by U.S. forces, the Jordanian-born guerrilla served as Osama bin Laden’s proxy in Iraq, attracting hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters under the al-Qaeda banner. At the same time, Zarqawi had grown into a strategic headache for al-Qaeda’s founders by demonstrating an independent streak often at odds with their goals.

But the Atlantic Monthly has a terrific report on the jihadist, in a special edition rushed for the Web (the story comes out in the July-August issue). This may be the best place to start.

The Washington Post story that disclosed the Pentagon policy to "magnify" al-Zarqawi’s reputation a full two months ago can be found here.

Some senior intelligence officers believe Zarqawi’s role may have been overemphasized by the propaganda campaign, which has included leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, Internet postings and at least one leak to an American journalist. Although Zarqawi and other foreign insurgents in Iraq have conducted deadly bombing attacks, they remain "a very small part of the actual numbers," Col. Derek Harvey, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq and then was one of the top officers handling Iraq intelligence issues on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Army meeting at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., last summer.

In a transcript of the meeting, Harvey said, "Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will — made him more important than he really is, in some ways."

A deadly cartoon.

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You can quote me

The government will have to reenact the 2005 budget, because the bicameral conference committee could not agree on the budget cuts for 2006. (The House position echoed that of the Palace: No cuts. Period.)

[Rep. Joey] Salceda said last-ditch efforts to narrow, if not fully restore, the P26.3 billion in cuts made by the Senate in the House-approved budget had proved futile.

“As House panel head, I have called off further negotiations on the budget since all options for a viable agreement have been explored and exhausted,” said Salceda in a text message Wednesday night.

I found out today, however, that what I thought was the choicest quote in all the beat-generated stories (from Malacanang, from the Senate, and from the House) did not make it to the Inquirer wrap-up. But because Inquirer Compact’s lack of space forced us to use basically just one story, that filed by our House reporter, we were able to use the missing remarks.

Salceda, you see, had also said the following:

"In times like this, you would know who truly loves the country and who realistically cares for the poor — an intransigent President, a belligerent Senate, or a subservient House, or a complacent people. Indeed, RP is a country of missed opportunities."

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Nuncio politics

Manolo Quezon has a ready answer to the question I raised late last night. Yes, the repeal of the death penalty (and the related law providing for lethal injection) happened because the President is meeting with the Pope late this month. She needed a suitable, substantial gift — and she got it a couple of weeks before her flight. 

I have no doubt that, once the audience with Pope Benedict XVI was confirmed, the word went out to the House: Support Edcel Lagman’s bill, now. The chamber’s own website today offers its own kind of confirmation: This picture, Nuncio_jdv with this caption: "Speaker Jose de Venecia and with the new apostolic Nuncio in the Philippines, H.E. Most Rev. Fernando Filoni, hold the copy of the Conference Committee Report on the abolition of the death penalty following its ratification by the House of Representatives Wednesday night. Joining de Venecia and Filoni are (from left) Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar, with Reps. Eduardo Veloso, Augusto Baculio (partly hidden), Luis Villafuerte, Edcel Lagman (principal sponsor), Simeon Kintanar and Constantino Jaraula."

As it turns out, the new Nuncio was at the Batasan, witness to and special guest at the final vote in the House. (A precedent I do not welcome, I must say.)

So, yes, the House (congressmen with tough-on-crime reputations included) got its marching orders, and off to the valley of death rode the 200.

What puzzles me, however, is the speed with which the Senate also passed its version of the bill, and the greater speed with which the Senate panel in the bicameral committee agreed to the consolidated bill. Yes, I do know that many senators (but certainly not all) have long had anti-capital punishment advocacies. I know that a number of them welcomed the President’s Easter Sunday commutation of all existing death sentences to life imprisonment. And yes, I know that the toughest of the tough-on-crime set, the mother-and-son tandem of Senator Loi Ejercito and Senator Jinggoy Estrada, have realized only too well that a repeal would benefit the paterfamilias (already five years, and counting, in detention).

But just this afternoon I saw Senator Ping Lacson, another law-and-order politician in the Joseph Estrada mold, describe the upper chamber to Pia Hontiveros on ANC as an "opposition Senate." If it were, what happened to its repeal bill? Why was it passed with alacrity? More to the point, why was it passed without winning any concessions from the Palace — treated like a gift, by politicians acting like they were beholden to Malacanang?

I wrote the following comment in Manolo’s indispensable blog (which, incidentally, is now harder to read, because of its new, reverse, white-on-black look):

I meant the politics of it, Manolo. The repeal seemed to have happened in a vacuum or, rather, as a separate issue altogether from other pending legislation (such as, you know, the budget). Of course many senators have been against the death penalty, but since when has personal conviction always translated into political action? What puzzles me is the alacrity with which the measure passed. Couldn’t (to ask only one question) the Senate have used the repeal as leverage in the budget deliberations? It was obviously something Gloria wanted.

Let’s face it: In the budget war, the opposition was badly outplayed. The terms were positively Ramosian, "win-win," for President Arroyo: She gets the 2006 budget, as proposed; she wins. She gets the reenacted 2005 budget, which would allow her to realign allocations previously allotted, and she wins too.

Which makes the Senate’s non-use of the leverage it enjoyed in the death penalty repeal all the more perplexing. Perhaps the senators were too busy haggling over the senate presidency to notice?

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7 June 2006: Today’s links

Web stands even taller in the media landscape: If you aren’t convinced, perhaps this Q&A might change your mind.

CJR’s rave: An unusual French kiss from the sometimes-surly, often-snide (but always-indispensable) CJR Daily, about the Toronto Star’s coverage of that Canadian terrorist cell. With links to the Star.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Publisher: I guess it was inevitable. The former Soviet leader is now in the newspaper business.

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Pasalubong for the Pope

A bicameral conference committee has just reconciled conflicting provisions in the Senate and House bills repealing the death penalty. That means that the repeal is only days away.

A bicameral committee approved a consolidated bill by the Senate and the House of Representatives calling for the repeal of a 1993 law that brought back capital punishment and a subsequent law that prescribed lethal injection as punishment, Representative Edcel Lagman said.

I must say that I did not expect Congress to act this swiftly. Less than two months ago, the President made her startling announcement, commuting all capital sentences to life imprisonment. I thought then (and wrote as much) that the commutation would be undermined by the fact that the death penalty would remain in the statute books; obviously, I did not think that Congress could muster the political will to pass any repeal. Well, I was wrong. The other night, both chambers passed their versions of the repeal. Less than 24 hours later, and contrary to the reservations aired by Majority Leader Prospero Nograles and opposition Rep. Roilo Golez, the bicam committee met and speedily approved the final version.

Is the President’s forthcoming visit to the Vatican the reason for the unusual speed? It does seem likely, at least at first blush, but on closer look we are left with rather more difficult questions: Was the recalcitrant Senate in on the plan to give Pope Benedict VXI a substantial pasalubong? Are administration congressmen, many of whom have tough-on-crime reputations, unafraid of the backlash from anti-crime groups?

I welcome the repeal, but as yet I do not fully understand how it came to pass.

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6 June 2006: Today’s links

Elizabeth Bumiller’s being-a-White-House-correspondent-isn’t-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be piece: This is going to be kicked around for a while; might as well find out what the fuss is all about.

Why (Bill) Clinton is still the life of the (Democratic) party: It’s the economics, stupid.

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The Born-in-Europe, Trained-in-Florida Tennis Superstar Academy’s newest graduate

I was up late the other night, because I happened to catch German-born, Florida-based Czech teener Nicole Vaidisova when she walloped World No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo in three sets, in the French Open. Vaidisova_1 Amazing serve, all-around game, high confidence, nerves of steel, plus the inevitable comparisons to fellow looker, fellow European expatriate, fellow Nick Bollettieri Academy graduate Maria Sharapova: It occurred to me then that we were going to hear more from this 17-year-old (who already has six WTA singles titles) in the coming years.  Tonight, I was a little late closing the pages assigned to me, because the TV set on our side of the newsroom was tuned in to the live telecast (12 noon in Paris, 6 pm in Manila) of Vaidisova’s quarterfinal match against former World No. 1 Venus Williams. Same pattern as the previous game: an extremely close first set, which Vaidisova lost, then blow-outs in the second and third sets. Andrew Lilley, writing for the impressive (but rather slow) French Open website, could not help himself: He ended his dispatch with the following prophecy-couched-as-a-diplomatically-worded-question: "but there was no stopping Vaidisova, who continued her amazing rise to prominence throughout this tournament by breaking Venus’ final service to win 6-7 6-1 6-3. She will face No8 seed Svetlana Kusnetsova in Thursday’s semifinal, but even in the other half of the draw, the top seeds will certainly have taken note of this result. Maria Sharapova will doubtless also have picked up on the fact that a tall, blond Eastern European with movie-star looks and a pink outfit was blowing kisses to the centre court crowd – has the WTA found a new poster girl?"

But here’s the truly amazing thing: Vaidisova is programmed to be that poster girl. Managed by the wheelers and dealers of IMG, she already has her own website, the PR world’s blessing as one of the breakout athletes of 2006, and live advertising endorsements. Her website, for example, has a special photo gallery showing off — what else? — Nicole Vaidisova in the act of endorsing.

She may truly be the future of women’s tennis — in more ways than one.

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5 June 2006: Today’s link

Benedict’s XVI’s alternative interpretation of the meaning of Auschwitz: John Allen’s reporting deserves a closer read, and the Pope’s confession of faith a second look.

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Yahoo boycott

Here’s something that will warm the hearts of Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, and other freedom bloggers: the National Union of Journalists in the United Kingdom and Ireland has called on its 40,000 members to boycott all Yahoo services, in protest over the company’s perceived kowtowing to the Chinese government.

The National Union of Journalists said it sent a letter on Friday to Dominique Vidal, Yahoo Europe’s vice president, denouncing the company for allegedly providing information to Chinese authorities about journalists.

The union also said it would stop using all Yahoo-operated services.

Yahoo has been cited in court decisions as supplying China’s government with information to help them identify, prosecute, and jail writers advocating democracy.

"The NUJ regards Yahoo’s actions as a completely unacceptable endorsement of the Chinese authorities," wrote Jemima Kiss, chairman of the NUJ new media council in the letter to Vidal.

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Imagining China (from Japan’s perspective)

Got something really thought-provoking in the mail the other day.  Japan Institute of International Affairs’s Commentary is running a series on "How Japan imagines China." No. 3, by Commentary editor Masaru Tamamoto, is a real eye-opener (at least for me).

Consider this paragraph, for example:

There is an almost schizophrenic mix of Japanese emotions at play. A Chinese purchase of a Russian submarine is a security threat, a defense official may declare. Yet, the next day the same official may dismiss the import of such a purchase, declaring that it is a Chinese-operated submarine after all and the Chinese navy manages to lose at least one submarine a year at sea. Anyone familiar with the history of modern Japan will readily recognize in such a remark the unstable mix of respect and condescension that is an enduring characteristic of how the Japanese have imagined China.

Now we know. Two paragraphs later, we read:

Of course, the expression of Japanese nationalism is not simple. Attitudes among the young toward the Chinese demonstrations are telling. As with their parents, the young found the demonstrations distasteful. Yet most of the young, who are said to be increasingly nationalistic, had a difficult time recognizing the “Japan” toward which the Chinese expressed so much anger. The Japanese Empire and the Second World War are not only distant in their imagination, but most younger Japanese lack a sense of identification with a collective called Japan. “Are you glad to have been born Japanese?” people have been asked in opinion polls over the years. The response among the young has been overwhelmingly positive, but not for reasons normally associated with nationalism. The common response is because life here is better than elsewhere, at least for now.

A riveting read.

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2 June 2006: Today’s link

The Popular Science blog: For our inner geek.

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X marks the spot

Just got a free ticket to X-Men 3. Tonight. Suddenly my writing plans  have, ah, mutated.

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1 June 2006: Today’s links

The role of political blogs: Their future, as David Perlmutter sees it, is best understood (at least in the United States) through the prism of the past.

Perlmutter’s policybyblog: A blog about political blogs, which includes this astonishing letter from a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Roger Cohen’s World Cup blog: The IHT sports columnist tries his hand at blogging the Beautiful Game.

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Legal loophole Miriam

We speculate often about the Macapagal-Arroyo-Defensor-Santiago alliance, about what keeps two strong-willed women loyal to each other in the zero-sum game that is Philippine politics. (The role of the senator’s husband, who is currently presidential adviser for revenue enhancement, is an unchanging focus of the speculation.)

We can expect the speculative fever to spike, again, after Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago reached an uncomfortable conclusion today about the new security arrangement the Philippines and the United States have just entered into (uncomfortable, that is, to Malacanang).

But Santiago said the arrangement, which began from exchange of diplomatic notes and entered into force on April 12, is not covered by the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) of 1999.

“The exchange of notes does not merely implement the VFA, but seems to be an indirect attempt to make the VFA applicable to US military personnel participating in military exercises in the Philippines for a wide variety of purposes other than those allowed by the Mutual Defense Treaty,” she said.

The MDT calls for cooperation in battling external security threats in any of the countries, while the VFA allows US forces to join large-scale military exercises in the Philippines.

At the same time, Santiago said the SEB, composed of American and Philippine military and civilian officials, “could be used by the US to participate in decision-making mechanisms of the Philippine government.”

This, emphatically, cannot be what the Palace had in mind. A ratification by the recalcitrant Senate? But — it must be said, and I say it ungrudgingly — Miriam has done right in calling attention to the legal issue.

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Filed in the folder marked: Why Am I Not Surprised?

Nope, no parliament by July, despite JDV’s best efforts.

The provision states that constitutional amendments must be ratified in a plebiscite within 60 days after being approved by Congress. Congress is set to adjourn on June 9 and reopen its third regular session on July 25.

Colmenares said the failure to convene a constitutional convention or constituent assembly means that the President will deliver her state of the nation address to the two houses of Congress in July.

See you at the Sona.

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Quantifying the killings

It seems that Malacanang has decided to get with the program. On the issue of the unsolved killings, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye released a new, (relatively) tougher statement.

"Those who perpetrated these senseless killings will not go far," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said in a statement. "The law enforcement authorities are on their tracks and we need the cooperation and support of all concerned sectors to get them."

(Note, though, how the second clause in the second sentence seems to undermine the first; the resoluteness of "we are on their tracks" suddenly turns limp, falls by the wayside.)

Yesterday’s economic good news, however, makes me think the real way to put pressure on the Arroyo administration to stop the killings and jail the killers is to argue from economics. Quantify, say, the economic costs of lost investor confidence, because hundreds of political activists and journalists have been killed in the last five years, and perhaps we may finally get somewhere.

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