Sunday, July 26, 2009

EDITORIAL: Obama the sanitizer

Somebody at the National Security Council dropped the ball. On Thursday, President Obama is welcoming Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the White House for his presidency’s first visit by a Southeast Asian leader. The choice of Mrs. Arroyo for this honor was a mistake because Mr. Obama is being used to give political cover for the Philippine president’s troubles back home.

Mrs. Arroyo’s domestic political position is precarious. A poll released June 8 by the Pulse Asia polling firm pegged Mrs. Arroyo’s public approval at only 26 percent. Street demonstrations against her are routine and growing in size. These protests are in response to a dubious mandate following a dirty 2004 election and numerous allegations of corruption against her family and administration. Her husband, Mike Arroyo, has left the country and used doctors’ notes to say he is too ill to obey court summons related to corruption charges.

The Philippines has become less free during Mrs. Arroyo’s 10-year presidency. According to Freedom House, “Corruption is extensive throughout the Philippine state apparatus, from the lowest to the highest levels. Bribes and extortion seem to be a regular element of the complex connections among bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, the press and the public.” In Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, the Philippines ranked 141st out of 180 nations on a list in which No. 1 is the least corrupt. The level of Philippine corruption is tied with Iran and Yemen and worse than in dodgy places such as Libya and Nigeria.

The corruption problem is affecting Manila’s relationship with other allies. A senior Philippine official told The Washington Times that German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Mrs. Arroyo an ultimatum last month that Berlin-Manila ties are at risk if the Philippines doesn’t pay $60 million owed to the German government for Manila’s new international airport. The Philippine government seized the airport and refused to pay a German company — which is partly owned by the German state — for its construction after revelations that the contract allegedly was laden with millions in bribes and kickbacks.

There are also serious human-rights abuses in the archipelago. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, “The Philippines ranks sixth worldwide among countries that fail to prosecute cases of journalists killed for their work.” Between 1992 and 2008, at least 34 journalists were murdered in the Philippines; there were convictions in only three of these cases. Four more members of the press were killed this June alone. Opposition voices regularly disappear as well.

On top of all this are machinations by Mrs. Arroyo to cling to power by setting aside next May’s presidential election. The president and her allies are pushing to amend the Philippine constitution to change the current U.S.-style presidential system into a parliamentary system whereby Mrs. Arroyo could serve as prime minister. This would allow her to circumvent the presidential term limit which prevents her from staying in office. This move, incidentally, is similar to the strategy strongman Ferdinand Marcos used to stay in power after declaring martial law in 1972.

The relationship between Washington and Manila is an old and important one. After the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war in 1898, the Philippine islands were a U.S. colony for half a century and have remained a close ally in the six decades since independence was granted in 1946. The current Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries allows U.S. troops on Philippine soil to help in the war on terrorism and to assist the Philippines with its fight against Islamic insurrection in the southern islands.

But the nation should be differentiated from its lame-duck leader. Welcoming Mrs. Arroyo to the White House only validates her troubled rule.