Buencamino writes political commentary for Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in Business Mirror November 22, 2006  edition, p. A6.

A meeting with George Bush is always a big event for Mrs. Gloria Arroyo. Maybe it’s also a big thing for Bush but we’ll never know because he doesn’t crow about it.

The hoopla on the “pull-aside” between Bush and Mrs. Arroyo at the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Hanoi reminded me of the APEC summit in Chile a few years ago. Back then, Bush was king of the world and Mrs. Arroyo was dying to be seen with him. Unfortunately for Mrs. Arroyo, Bush was upset over her withdrawal of the Philippine troops from the coalition of the willing.  He rebuffed all her requests for a meeting.

Mrs. Arroyo was understandably worried about a Bush snub, so when the summit organizers seated her beside Bush at the State dinner hosted by the Chilean president, her delegation made the most out of it.

A reporter saw the “Hand of God” in the seating arrangements. The Philippine delegation  saw Bush’s arm wrapping “around Mrs. Arroyo’s back as he got close to her in conversation” and Palace spokesperson Ignacio Bunye said he could see that  it ” spoke well of diplomatic, trade, and mutual defense ties between their two countries.”

Of course, no herald was close enough to catch anything Bush or Mrs. Arroyo said but Bunye insisted he didn’t need to hear anything because “if you watched the footage, you would have seen the body language.”

Bush was more congenial in Hanoi. He granted Mrs. Arroyo a ten-minute “pull-aside.”

What is a “pull-aside”? One member of Mrs. Arroyo’s delegation described it as, “They just pulled a chair and said ‘let’s have our meeting here.’”  A “pull-aside” is not really a meeting but Mrs. Arroyo said it didn’t stop her from raising “very substantive” issues with Bush.

She offered Mindanao as an alternate battleground for the war on terror.  She told Bush, “Mindanao has all the ingredients of a fresh global crusade to defeat terror, to foster understanding and interfaith solidarity, to build self-determination, to fight ignorance and poverty.”

Fortunately for us, Bush was not on the same page as Mrs. Arroyo because he replied,  “…the US will not stop engagement in the Far East. It will not retreat and will be active in fora such as Apec.” But who knows, he might just hold Mrs. Arroyo to her invitation if and when he decides to leave Baghdad.

Mrs. Arroyo also said Bush replied positively when she told him that Trade Secretary Peter Favila and US Trade Representative Susan Schwab had discussed a bilateral free trade agreement.  She said he said, “I would encourage a continuing discussion between Susan Schwab and Secretary Favila here.”

What can happen if Schwab says the US wants a treaty with certain provisions similar to the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA)? The Philippines can become a dumping ground for toxic wastes in addition to it turning into a battleground for the war on terror, that’s what can happen.

At the start of their “pull-aside”,  Bush told Mrs. Arroyo the US and the Philippines continued to enjoy good relations “especially so since the cook in the White House is Filipino-American.” He added, “And if you notice the paunch, it’s because the food is very, very good.”

Mrs. Arroyo should have gone along with Bush’s attempt to keep the discussions light and informal. Besides, there was no way mutual and regional security affairs and a bilateral free trade agreement could be tackled in 10 minutes. But Mrs. Arroyo is headstrong. She insisted on raising “very substantive” issues at the “pull-aside” and she exposed us all to potentially very serious problems.