The canary in the mine

Buencamino writes political commentary for Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in Business Mirror August 1, 2007 edition, p. A10.

On 6 July 2007, Palace spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, claimed security-related aid to the Philippines had been increased.

He said, “We are thankful to our friends in both Houses of the US Congress and in the Executive Branch for their faith in the government of the Philippines as demonstrated in the strong military funding currently appropriated to the Philippines in the 2008 Foreign Military Funding bill.”

Two weeks later, a local TV network reported that security-related aid to the Philippines had been cut.

Who’s telling the truth?

US Embassy spokesman Matthew Lussenhop tried to set the record straight.

He said,  “I think it’s misleading to say that assistance has been cut. The US federal government’s budget for fiscal year 2008 hasn’t been passed yet…It would be premature to say that aid has been cut.”

That should have been that,  but Lussenhop’s statement cuts both ways.  If the 2008 budget had not been passed, then it’s also “premature” and “misleading” for Bunye to claim that security-related assistance had been raised.

And Lussenhop failed to mention a couple of things that would have cleared things up.

First, the State Department submitted a budget request that included across the board cuts to security -related assistance to the Philippines.

Second, foreign aid to the Philippines falls under discretionary spending – that part of the foreign operations budget not earmarked by Congress for certain countries.

Thus, based on the State Department’s funding request, we don’t have to wait for the enactment of the 2008 budget to presume the following cuts are as good as done:

Foreign Military Financing (FMF) down to $11M from $17M, International Military Education and Training (IMET) to $1.5M from $2.8M, International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) to $1.1M from $1.9M, Anti-Terror Assistance  (ATA) to $3.5M from $4.4M, Counter-Terrorism Financing (CTF) to $343,000 from $680,000, and Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP) to $140,000 from $200,000.

Does that mean George Bush and Condoleeza Rice are unhappy with Mrs. Arroyo?

Defense Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor does not think so. He said, “The amount is not as important as the relationship. The relationship is really more important than the amount…”

Matthew Lussenhop  said basically the same thing, “Our relationship is based on long, strong partnership, great military and security partnership. Sometimes the numbers go up [while] some projects and activities, sometimes they go down… The main thing for us is, it’s not about the numbers but the quality of the programs and how effective they are.”

And he lamented the “tendency to look at the budget numbers and take them as a shorthand indicator of the power of these relations (Philippines-US bilateral relations). And that’s misleading.”

Well, their spin on reduced security-related aid is smooth, up to a point.

Ideally, security-related assistance from the US shouldn’t be seen “as a shorthand indicator of the power of these relations.”

However, Gloria Arroyo is totally dependent on the military and the police to keep herself in power. So a substantial cut in security-related budget items is not good.

The amount is the canary in the mine. It speaks of the relationship. It turns the rhetoric of  “long, strong partnership, great military and security partnership”  into reality.

Queen Gloria should keep an eye on the bird and not an ear to the spin.

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