The Price of Freedom

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, July 22, 2004)


The freeing of Angleo de la Cruz, the Filipino truck driver kidnapped and held for two weeks by Iraqi insurgents, was a good thing — obviously. But the way the Manila government caved to his kidnappers’ demands, pulling out the last of its 51 peacekeeping troops, sets a precedent that endangers all foreign nationals in Iraq.

Filipino President Gloria Arroyo confirmed de la Cruz’s release in a televised address and explained her decision to pull the troops a month ahead of schedule:

“With over 1 million OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in the Middle East and over 8 million overall, my government has a deep national interest in their well-being wherever they live and work…. I made a decision to bring our troops home a few days early in order to spare the life of Angelo. I do not regret that decision. Every life is important.”

Public opinion in the Philippines largely backs Arroyo –- unsurprisingly, given that Fillipinos mostly were against the war in the first place. It’s a different story outside the country, where allies expressed appropriate relief for de la Cruz while flaying Manila for letting kidnappers drive its foreign policy. As a Tuesday New York Times staff editorial argued:

“President Arroyo’s decision may play well at home in the short term because Filipino involvement in Iraq was never all that popular to begin with, but it could have disastrous longer-term consequences for her government. The Philippines, after all, faces a number of terrorist groups on its own territory, and millions of its citizens work overseas. It is never wise for any government to be blackmailed by terrorists into abandoning its policies, but it seems especially ill advised for Manila to be doing so.

“We are not arguing that allies show blind loyalty to the Bush administration. If anything, President Arroyo’s surrender shows the perils of assembling a coalition of weak allies eager to please Washington but lacking much conviction in the American cause. President Arroyo is certainly not helping the Iraqi people with her decision. Spain and some Latin American countries had every right to exercise their sovereign judgment that it was best to leave Iraq. But their decisions, unlike President Arroyo’s, were not driven by terrorist demands.”

Already, anti-coalition elements are trying to capitalize on the success of the kidnappers’ tactics with new threats to other nations. Reuters reports that a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has decided to pressure Japan next, posting this warning on the Internet:

“To the government of Japan: Do what the Philippines has done. By God, nobody will protect you and we are not going to tolerate anybody. Lines of cars laden with explosives are awaiting you; we will not stop, God willing.”

Similar threats were made by other insurgent groups Wednesday against coalition members Poland and Bulgaria, promising explosions in the former and “pools of blood” in the latter. And early Wednesday morning, a group calling itself the “Holders of the Black Banners” took six more truck drivers hostage – three Indians, two Kenyans and an Egyptian. The group has threatened to behead one hostage every three days if those countries – none of which is part of the coalition military force – do not withdraw civilian workers from Iraq, according to a statement obtained by the Associated Press:

“We have warned all the countries, companies, businessmen and truck drivers that those who deal with American cowboy occupiers will be targeted by the fires of the Mujahedeen. Here you are once again transporting goods, weapons and military equipment that backs the U.S. Army.”

Even before Wednesday’s wave of threats, Colin Powell criticized the Filipino pull-out, and praised South Korea and Bulgaria for “not blinking and not faltering even though they are being tested mightily by kidnappings and by beheadings. This kind of action cannot be allowed to succeed anywhere in the 21st century, above all not Iraq. In these difficult times we have to remain steadfast.”

Other allies remain steadfast, for now.Bulgaria, Japan and Poland promised Wednesday to remain in Iraq despite new threats. Last Thursday, European governments ignored the passing of a deadline reportedly set by Osama bin Laden, who promised a “truce” for countries that pulled all troops out of Muslim states.

When Manila agreed to pull out, the coalition only lost one small member, and the remaining countries seem unlikely to give in. But insurgents have clearly seized on the surrender to seize more hostages and present more nations with a winless proposition. By giving in to terrorists, the Philippines opened a Pandora’s box, but its allies and their citizens will likely be the ones who pay the price.

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