How the response to a devastating storm in the Philippines reveals a new role for the U.S. military in Asia.
As the Philippines struggles to address the damage wreaked by Tropical Storm Ketsana, a political storm is also brewing. Filipino senators are currently calling on the government to renegotiate the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. The senators leading the charge contend that the agreement, signed in 1998, is unconstitutional because it is silent on how long U.S. forces may remain in the country and what precisely they can do while there. Around 600 U.S. troops are currently based in the country to train the Filipino military in counterterrorism operations.
The Philippines shares a long history with the United States. The islands became a U.S. colony at the end of the 19th century in the wake of the Spanish American War. U.S. and Filipino forces later fought together during World War II to repel occupying forces, and the United States didn’t shutter its last military bases in the country until 1992.
Today, underlying concerns about the VFA include the charge that the U.S. attempt to help "modernize" the Filipino military has come up short. Senators also accuse U.S. forces of having overstepped their advisory and training role by joining with their Filipino counterparts in combat against Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines.
Against this background, it’s only natural to reconsider the role of the U.S. military in the Philippines. And Ketsana actually provides an opportunity to think beyond traditional combat operations. The storm has severely affected almost 2 million lives in and around Manila. More than 200 people have perished. Filipino authorities have appealed to the international community for assistance, as more storms are expected to hit soon.
The U.S. response so far has been laudable, including troops and military equipment to help with rescue and relief efforts and millions of dollars in medical supplies. This rapid response in support of local authorities was facilitated by the U.S. troop presence in the Philippines.
A concerted humanitarian effort that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the U.S. military is not just an act of compassion — it’s also good statecraft and a perfect application of so-called "smart power." Recall the favorable turnaround in public opinion in Indonesia following U.S. aid to that country in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. Although public opinion polls are just a snapshot in time, the positive impact of the U.S. military’s effort, including the supply of much-needed items such as generators and road repair equipment, was not just fleeting.
In the future, rather than simply reacting after such disasters take place, U.S. forces should reconsider their mission in the region, making humanitarian aid an integral component and actively improving their ability to respond to crises. If there is a silver lining to these catastrophes, it may be that U.S. policymakers come to understand just how valuable these nontraditional activities can be.
Opportunities to advance the national interest while winning hearts and minds overseas don’t come along every day, and the United States would be wise to take advantage. Some may argue that the military should not mix in this realm or cannot do so without "tainting" civilian or nongovernmental efforts. But it’s hard to argue with the humanitarian potential of the military’s unmatched material capabilities combined with its dedication to service and professionalism.
As an interagency panel in Manila prepares to review the VFA, parties on both sides should be reflecting upon their goals and considering carefully how best to meet them. Combining wise tactics with solid strategy here could produce a win-win situation. Recent U.S. action on the humanitarian front is encouraging. Doing good and doing right need not be mutually exclusive — and in this case should even be mutually reinforcing.