Opinion: Caught with our pants down

Have we been caught with our pants down?

When US President Barrack Obama arrived in the Philippines on Monday, I was engaged in a rather interesting discussion on what happened at the town hall meeting with young ASEAN leaders in Malaysia the day before.

The topic, which has flooded my Facebook newsfeed that day, revolved on the supposed weakness of the questions thrown at the US President by those who were dubbed as “future leaders” of the region. A Yahoo article, for instance, highlighted the supposed wasted opportunity when questions about happiness and regrets were asked instead of directing the conversation towards US foreign policy and interests in the region.

There were those who echoed the sentiments aired in the article, and there were those who defended the so-called “young leaders” and the questions that they asked. A colleague from Malaysia, who also expressed her disappointment on the set of questions, provided an insight on what happened – “Some people just want to learn more about him. That’s really understandable when you take a closer look at who the questioners were, how the program itself was packaged and promoted, and the aims of the town hall… This was a town hall for young leaders on leadership. Expect some young (read: naïve) questions on leadership.”

This is not surprising. The questions for Obama, in fact, was better than the question about music preference that was directed at then State Secretary Hillary Clinton when she met student journalists in Manila in 2011 (Side note: Then Philippine Collegian editor-in-chief Marjohara Tucay was escorted out of the premises after successfully airing his sentiments on the Mutual Defense Treaty).

What surprised me during the Obama visit were the things that I have seen and read when he was here in the Philippines.

On Monday night, when I turned on the television, expecting a recap of the things that the US President said – or did not say – upon his arrival, what I heard was a rundown of the food that will be served during the state dinner.

The following day, my feed is littered with posts about Obama’s failure to pronounce President Aquino’s name, discussions about selfies with the Air Force One, or concerned tweets that the US President could die because of the heat.

There were reports of rallies of activists who are against the presence of US forces here in the country, which are matched by posts of grumbling netizens or man-on-the-street interviews of those who – unlike the activists – expressed their warm welcome for the US president.

The visit was an affirmation, they said, of the US commitment to protect the Philippines in light of China’s aggressive behavior.

Journalist Ellen Tordesillas thought otherwise, describing it as “delusion” that was shattered by the US president during the joint press conference with President Aquino.

“Obama (understandably) was being careful with his words even when he wanted to disabuse the delusions of many Filipinos of their importance to America,” said Tordesillas.

Herein lies the problem.

That big town hall called the Philippines

The problem is that the Philippines turned into something similar to the town hall event with young leaders in Malaysia.

But instead of young leaders, whom we can dismiss as “young (read: naïve),” we are talking about adults who talk about the performance of the cabinet secretaries for the US president, or how Obama mentioned adobo and Pacquiao in his speech.

These were trivial matters that have become the talk of the town, matters that have taken precedence over – and even buried – discussions on the more relevant Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Trivial matters that, interestingly, similar to the trivial matters that cluttered reports on the twin canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II several days before.

Filipinos were in awe that the leader of a powerful country visited the Philippines, and we wanted to show him how hospitable we are to foreign visitors. There was nothing wrong with that. But too much we had been concerned with this that we failed to see the reality – Obama was here not as a tourist, but a leader of a superpower who means business.

A portion of Obama’s videotaped speech during a youth summit that I attended in December repeatedly echoed in my mind: “Prosperity and peace in the Asia Pacific,” he said, “means more opportunity for all of us, including the United States. And I will make sure we’re building that future together.”

This is what I would have wanted to be the center of the discussions as regards his arrival. Not his thoughts on Manny Pacquiao or adobo, but the “opportunity” that the United States sees in the Asia-Pacific region.

The visitor

Perhaps what happened speaks a lot about us. We have a culture that gives high regard to fame – regardless of whether he is a foreign politician, a powerful religious leader, or an extremely popular Hollywood celebrity.

Obama is not a popular boy band or the pope, whose visits I don’t have a problem being trivialized as these does not concern territorial disputes with an emerging superpower or the presence of foreign troops who will be virtually immune to lawsuits in regular courts.

But whose fault it is? Is it of those who snarl at efforts to criticize the US foreign policy due to their “delusion” that the superpower will defend the Philippines in times of crisis?

I’d rather think not.

Instead, I point my fingers at government officials who continue with this charade, depriving the public of their right to discuss matters that affect them – for instance the refusal to release EDCA until after it was signed by people who are supposed to represent the public.

I point my fingers at the media, of which I am a part of, for continuing with the tradition of sensationalized reporting, preferring to give the public what they want – instead of what they need – to know.

I point my fingers at the education system that – while it boasts internationalization as its present goal – fails to equip the youth with the knowledge that they need when it comes to dealing with policies, local or international.

We were caught with our pants down. And instead of pulling it up, we decided to just proceed with kissing his metaphorical ass.

Disclosure: The writer has publicly expressed his awe with the Marine One helicopter that Obama used during his visit, declaring it as something that was “straight out of (his) sci-fi dreams.”

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