Gibo talks security, but people hear politics

By Rodney J. Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Sep 12 2009 09:29 AM | Updated as of Sep 12 2009 05:32 PM

WASHINGTON DC - His American audience was scrutinizing Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto "Gibo" Teodoro when he met top US officials, addressed one of America's most influential conservative think-tank, and broke bread with the Fil-Am community here.

Teodoro talked about security and RP-US ties, but reports he was being groomed as President Arroyo's successor, loomed large in the discussion and open forums.

"If I am nominated, I will run for president," he told a mixed audience at the Heritage Foundation.

The political kibitzing is heating up because his 2nd degree cousin, Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, also announced he is seeking the presidency under the Liberal Party of his father, the martyred Ninoy Aquino Jr.

If that happens, observers here noted, Filipinos could witness an epic battle in Philippine politics.

Teodoro will run under the administration Lakas-KAMPI coalition.

The Liberal Party has been in the opposition since former strongman Ferdinand Marcos bolted the party in 1969 so he can run for president under the rival Nacionalista Party.

Both launched their political careers as congressmen in Tarlac - Teodoro for the 1st district and Aquino for the 3rd district. This is just the start of the sharp differences between the two cousins.

Aquino's late mother, democratic icon Corazon, and Teodoro's mother Mercedes, are members of warring wings of Central Luzon's powerful Cojuangco clan.

The conflict predates Martial Law; Cory Aquino's brother Jose also known as Peping, and that of Mercedes', Eduardo who's more popularly known as Danding, became bitter, sometimes violent protagonists.

The 1st district of Tarlac is an Ilocano-speaking district; the 3rd district is mostly Kapangpangan-speaking.

Aquino spent his elementary to college years in Ateneo; Teodoro earned his finance major degree from Dela Salle University. Ateneo and DLSU have a longstanding and storied rivalry that in the past spilled into melees after a basketball game.

But the biggest difference between the two prospective political gladiators is their values and beliefs. One has a deep liberal bent, the other lies more on the right of the political spectrum.

Teodoro signaled reporters here that he wants to use all these to lift the level of competition with his cousin.

"Look at it very objectively," he urged them, "I think this is a good thing because of the fact that we are cousins and we are friends."

"We got close only when we were in Congress because of the peculiar situation of our families. Knowing that, we will consciously uphold our being relatives and friends, so the effect will be that we will not allow politics to come between us," the defense chief said.

Message to Americans

The timing of Teodoro's visit appeared to be significant, coming at a time when America was marking the 8th anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC.

He met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the Pentagon, their second in as many months. A last-minute glitch prevented him from meeting with Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta but he did talk with his deputy at the sprawling, but highly restricted CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

At the Heritage Foundation, Teodoro did not hide his strong links to the US.

"My great-grandfather came from here to help build what is now Baguio City in the Philippines. My grandfather was among the first Filipino scholars to graduate from a United States college. My father spent 16 years in Washington DC. My mother studied in the United States and after she married my father, they spent many wonderful years in Washington before I was born. My wife grew up here; I studied here," he told the audience.

Teodoro earned his Masters of Laws from Harvard University and is actually licensed to practice law in New York.

And his message seemed just as assuring to the American public.

"It serves no doubt as a deterrent," he said relating to the close RP-US military alliance.

Teodoro declared his desire to keep American troops in the Philippines, despite protests calling for the abrogation or renegotiation of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

"We believe the US presence is a cornerstone to regional peace and stability," he told reporters.

Although the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah threat in Mindanao is on the wane, he suggested hosting the US was part of the Philippine's responsibilities as a member of the bustling, burgeoning but highly vulnerable Southeast Asian region.

"Without the alliance the undesirable activities and threats could well be magnified," he argued.

China, he noted, was flexing its muscle in the region. But he underscored the need to engage with the Philippine's most powerful next-door neighbor, even as it keeps a wary high on its interests in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

"A strong Philippines is in the interest of the United States and all countries which value fundamental freedoms and individual liberties," Teodoro stressed.

He added the RP-US security alliance is ensuring that countries in the region "behave".

In his talks with the US defense chief, Teodoro said there was a mutual desire to build on the successes of joint counter terrorism operations in the Philippines.

They are already exploring the possible extension of US military support to the Philippines, from combating terror groups to disaster response - laying the groundwork for justifying the American military presence, apparently beyond the basic framework of the six-decade-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

"US troops can only be posted based on approved activities," Teodoro explained.

Shades of Magsaysay?

He scoffed observation that he can be a reincarnate of popular President Ramon Magsaysay.

Magsaysay also started his career as a congressman in 1946 who was appointed Secretary of National Defense in 1950. He went after the Hukbalahap with a strategy developed by American Gen. Edward Lansdale, reportedly a CIA agent.

In 1952, he visited Washington DC and New York. The next year, Magsaysay became the 3rd president of the Philippines. He helped craft the Manila Pact of 1954 that served as foundation for establishing the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a US-led military alliance in the region.

"That's purely accidental," Teodoro said of his current post as a possible springboard to the presidency.

"The situation during the time of Magsaysay is very different from today. You heard the lecture at the National Defense University, the Philippines was facing only a Hukbalahap threat at the time, now we're facing several threats. The path is coincidental. My performance as Secretary of National Defense has motivated some people to endorse me to the position," he averred.

Teodoro has already indicated he will not accept the vice presidential post if he loses the Lakas-KAMPI nomination in November.

"There is a different calculation for my family. The decision my family will have to make is to see if a run for the vice presidency will be worth it. That's six years of sacrifice because I can not do things that I would otherwise do to help my family. Secondly, that's six years of uncertainty because when you're vice president, you worry what your next step will be. I want this to be over with, I want to move on after this," he declared, half in jest.

Healing president

If he wins, he wants to convene a Constitutional Convention immediately to erase any doubts about its motives.

"I am the only one talking about structural change," Teodoro declared.

"Good governance," he explained, "is not only a function of putting good men in government. The structures must be attuned to the needs of the country. That is the most pressing need today."

But perhaps more interesting to the present dispensation is his promise to be a "healing president".

"We have to put a stop to the politics of vengeance. I choose to look forward. Dispensing justice is the job of the judicial authorities. If a president dips his fingers in the prosecution of someone, especially if this was is his political enemy, that's vengeance. When he does that, he'll be spending 60 percent of his time looking over his shoulder that this will not happen to him too," Teodoro explained.

By design or merely a coincidence, that is a soothing message to - if he wins the May 2010 ballot - his predecessor who today, faces the threat of criminal and corruption cases that have been held at bay only because she has immunity while she is president.