Many in Manila were surprised to learn Sunday that their favorite of all American ambassadors, the flamboyant Kristie Kenney, is not as kind as they’ve originally thought. Online whistle-blower WikiLeaks revealed that, in a 2010 cable, the good ambassador made comments about revered Philippine icon Corazon Aquino that a senior Filipino diplomat describes as “unkind.”
In the said memo, Kenney called Aquino an “icon of democracy” but also “only a partial icon of morality.”
“Antipathy toward President Arroyo led her to ally with more dubious political figures such as President Estrada, blemishing her reputation as a moral crusader,” the memo said, alluding to Aquino’s call on Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose alleged kleptocracy plagued the Philippines for nine years, to step down in 2005 after serious evidence of fraud in her 2004 re-election surfaced.
Kenney also remarked that Aquino’s “moral leadership, while coming at an important time for the Philippines, never fully compensated for her weak leadership style.” She cited “numerous coup attempts and allegations of corruption” that marked Aquino’s tenure, as well as an “imperfect 1987 Constitution that, according to some observers, was passed in extreme haste to meet an artificial deadline imposed by Aquino, taking the country from one extreme—rigid rule under Marcos—to another extreme, in which minority parties and groups without defined constituencies are given extensive power at the expense of a more mature and stable political system.”
These leaked remarks drew adverse reactions from Manila’s commentariat. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, a former ambassador to the United States, called the comments “unfortunate.” Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiroz, on the other hand, chided Kenney for not fully understanding Aquino’s standing among the Filipino masses. “Evidently, though Kenney was the one US ambassador who made it a point to try to get along with the Pinoys, or be seen as such, gracing radio shows and appearing at one point in Wowowee, she never really had a clue about the Pinoy,” he wrote.
Not that the remarks were unreasonable, of course. An honest assessment of the first Aquino presidency would show that it was indeed significant for what did not happen, like genuine agrarian reform, for instance; and for what shouldn’t have happened but did, like corruption allegedly by Aquino’s relatives and allies. The Aquino-promulgated constitution is indeed far from perfect, too. But still, it’s not accurate to say that Aquino’s “moral leadership” did not make up for her “weak leadership style.” For all her shortcomings, Aquino was able to build, to a very considerable extent, viable democratic institutions that survived serious threats from both the Left and the Right during their infancy. It wasn’t an easy task, considering the intricacies of the post-Edsa political environment; and considering, further, that Aquino had been a “mere housewife.”
But what makes the leaked remarks extremely interesting is that it seems to add currency to an old scuttlebutt: That Kristie Kenney generally acted as Arroyo’s ambassador to the United States.
Indeed, Secretary del Rosario’s comment is quite telling. In a phone conversation with the Inquirer, he reportedly called Kenney “a big fan” of Arroyo, saying that “she constantly preferred instead to be favorably looked upon” by the previous regime.
It’s convenient, then and now, for Arroyo’s supporters to criticize both Aquino and her 1987 Constitution. Many of the Arroyo apologists I know say that Aquino’s criticism of Arroyo is unfounded since, according to them, compared with the latter, the former was a disaster of a president. Never mind that integrity, not competence, was the issue. Also, that the 1987 Constitution has a lot of defects was a mantra used by Arroyo and her supporters to try, in vain, to mobilize support for an overhaul of the constitution, which would have transformed the country’s form of government from US-style presidential system to parliamentary style that would have allowed Arroyo to become prime minister for life.
Kenney made the controversial cable at a time when an attempt by Arroyo to extend her stay in power was a very serious possibility. At that time, there was public outrage for the election fraud, the kleptocracy and the human rights abuses that marked her eight-year rule; and all serious contenders for the presidency were promising, in one way or another, to prosecute her once she steps down. Analysts feared that she may sabotage the 2010 polls, declare a failure of elections, and use it as a justification to extend her stay in Malacanang Palace. Her body language didn’t help assuage those fears. Indeed, her last State of the Nation Address sounded more like a call to arms than a valedictory.
And amidst all these, Kenney was allegedly telling Washington that everything is fine in Manila. Former American mandarin W. Scott Thompson, acknowledged in both Manila and Washington as a Philippine hand, revealed last year that Kenney, in fact, had only two sources for her reports to the State Department: Arroyo and her Executive Secretary, General Eduardo Ermita.
“For the past three years, the embassy was sending the official message that there is no problem here. It’s like someone in Washington was saying in September 2001 ‘Oh what a beautiful month this is,’” Thompson said in a 2010 interview on ANC’s The Rundown. “She just didn’t get it. The embassy is just out of touch with the reality here.”
According to Thompson, although the Philippines had been generally off Washington’s radar screen, the White House became interested in the Philippine election of 2010 after political tensions broke out in the other American treaty ally in Southeast Asia, Thailand. And allegedly, the then incoming Obama administration was taken by surprise by the danger of a term-extension scenario because Kenney had been painting an overly optimistic picture of the political situation in the Philippines under Arroyo.
“Kenney, alas, will be remembered as the ambassador who deeply misinformed Washington about her mission. She made the cardinal and felonious error of becoming President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s errand girl to DC, rather than DC’s eyes and ears in Manila,” Thompson wrote in an op-ed for The Korea Times.
What made Thompson’s assertion credible is the fact that it was Thompson who made it. Having served as a senior official in both the Ford and Reagan administrations, Thompson is very well-connected in Washington. As a long-time expert on Philippine politics, his assessment and analysis of Philippine conditions is usually regarded highly in the White House. He also has a direct line to Dennis Blair, who as Director of National Intelligence at that time briefed President Obama on vital security issues.
In fact, Thompson’s appearance on ANC where he claimed that President Obama “doesn’t like” Arroyo, and that an attempt by Arroyo to extend her term would warrant the recall of the American ambassador in Manila and even suspension of aid, worried the Arroyo administration so much that one of its spokespersons, Charito Planas, reportedly called him immediately after the interview to try to get him to “soften” what he had said on air.
Some columnists even took his words as Washington’s. And indeed, Thompson’s warning to Arroyo was later reiterated, in diplomatese, by the then newly-appointed ambassador, Harry K. Thomas. Allegedly, these subtle American warnings were instrumental in making Arroyo abandon her term extension plans.
Perhaps further revelations from WikiLeaks in the coming days could confirm, or negate, Thompson’s description of how Kenney behaved as her country’s ambassador in the Philippines. But if indeed they are true, and it’s not difficult to bet that they are, then we can say that Secretary del Rosario was not exaggerating when he said that “unlike her distinguished predecessors, Kenney was a dismal failure in helping the Filipinos defend our democracy.”