Picking untimely fights and ignoring a war with a pink flamingo

Published July 22, 2020, 10:41 PM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


Diwa C. Guinigundo

“Perhaps our number one problem today is COVID. ”

 – President Rodrigo Duterte

21 July, 2020

Many factors have been cited to explain the fall of the Roman Empire. For many historians, the Caesars’ over expansion was the most dominant factor. The empire waged numerous and almost never-ending two-front wars of imperialism. Rome’s energy was also sapped repelling local rebellions and external attacks from barbarian groups like the Goths, as well as from Germanic tribes the Vandals and Saxons.

While invading Russia, Napoleon also campaigned against the Spanish and Anglo-Portuguese army. Napoleon was vanquished in Waterloo. And banished to St. Helena.

In both World War I and II, Germany fought and lost in multiple fronts against the allied forces. 

Japan took on and lost Asia and the Pacific including what are now Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and some parts of the US, Guam and Wake.

History has invariably shown that spreading oneself too thinly over big territories, and across long battle lines against several enemies, is a sure formula for failure. 

Sure defeat awaits one who does not even recognize that he has an enemy that lies in wait, determined to kill.

One should recall that upon its assumption of power in 2016, the Duterte Administration declared war against poverty and inequality via its Ten-Point Socioeconomic Agenda. 

This required the administration to focus on various fronts.  These included ensuring good macroeconomic policies; implementing progressive tax reforms; championing competitiveness and ease of doing business; accelerating and prioritizing infrastructure development; promoting rural and value chain development; ensuring security of land tenure; investing in human capital; promoting science, technology and the creative arts; improving social protection and strengthening family health.

Until this viral scourge, we have seen promising results in many areas of the socioeconomic agenda. 

Several tax measures were passed by Congress. The Bangko Sentral’s charter was amended after decades of languishing in Congress. Foreign exchange regulations were constantly liberalized. Public school and university tuition fees were covered by the national budget. More people were covered by health insurance.  Revenues were rising and public spending rallied private investments in power and connectivity.  The Build, Build, Build program was launched to address the large infra deficit and ensure that economic growth becomes more sustainable, inclusive and more self-sustaining.

The war against poverty and inequality should have been more than enough to occupy the six years of this government.  Nonetheless, the President opened up several other battle lines.

Most famous of these is the war against drugs.  Both the military and police were deployed and authorized to wage war against prohibited drugs. Former PNP chief and now Senator De la Rosa declared that the policy is aimed at “the neutralization of illegal drug personalities nationwide.” At least nine government agencies are involved in this campaign against three identified local-based drug dealers and distributors as well as three foreign drug cartels. 

This is a war that has divided the population and has instilled fear among the people.  It has been four years and we have yet to see big drug dealers and drug lords prosecuted and imprisoned.

Some independent surveys have shown some support for this campaign. But as reported by the Economist last February 20, 2020, the Human Rights Commission “believes the total number of extra-judicial killings to be some 27,000…”

Credit rating agencies like Moody’s observed that the manner in which the drug war is being waged“… could be a risk to growth because of investor sentiment, and investor sentiment has been getting cloudier given the political situation.”  

Second, the President also declared war against terrorists including the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army. 

On tactical disposition, Sun Tzu said: “What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.”

In his 13 July 2020 column in our sister-publication, The Philippine Star, Boo Chanco painted a poignant and frantic image of Sec. Sonny Dominguez and Sec. Karl Chua keeping “their fingers in the dike,” as they struggle to implement economic recovery plans.

Whatever victories we have won in the war against poverty and inequality are threatened by the pandemic.  

For the past months, as a global pandemic rages on, Philippine Congress has identified and picked fights that are distracting and untimely, ultimately leaving the Filipino people to their own devices in the war against COVID-19. 

While some laws are already operative to deal with terrorism, the Anti-Terror Law was passed to raise the ante. The law criminalizes acts that incite terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations.”  Its passing has generated around ten petitions to the Supreme Court seeking to declare it unconstitutional. 

At a time when a formidable infection is rapidly killing people and the economy, Congress spent time and resources to get this law through the mill.  Sacrificed was more legislative work on the budget, approving the stimulus package to fight the pathogen and restart the economy as well as passing tax reforms. The high opportunity cost of the Anti-Terror law is the non-prioritization of economic revival. 

During a period when unity is most needed in civil society, the Anti-Terror Law has triggered mass protests and has diverted public opinion away from the pressing issue of how the health crisis must be managed.    

Another distraction was Congress’ denial of a major radio-TV network’s franchise application. Congress also sought for sanctions against it, including a nearly P2 trillion fine and seizure of its headquarters in Quezon City. Instead of dealing with the network’s violations by imposing penalties, the franchise was not renewed. 

This move has left Government to deal with an array of new adversaries—movie stars, human rights champions, fans of Cardo, even those from the other network. Kapamilya and Kapuso are now one. These are not worthwhile fights at this time.

It would not be remote to expect other franchise holders to give home to the aggrieved network. To make matters worse, even as we purportedly live in a democracy, the NBI has also started war against posting in social media. 

A fight is also posed against so-called oligarchs without a clear definition of who constitute the oligarchy.

In the horizon, we see a fourth war.  This is the attempt to shepherd some constitutional amendments. 

Charter change goals may include amendments to liberalize ownership of public utilities and media beyond domestic domain.  To the extent that this could attract more investments into the Philippines, such amendments may be welcomed. But other proposed amendments could be on federalism and Philippine territories, and political term limits. These points all deserve public attention; but aside from their need to be debated in public forum, timing is highly questionable.

We cannot simply allow people to do as they please in a democracy. As Sun Tzu anticipated: “Can you imagine what I could do if I could do all I can?”

Aside from the war against poverty and inequality, we reiterate for the nth time that the Government must focus its people and resources on fighting the war against the pink flamingo that is the pandemic. 

Experts say that more than being a “black swan,” COVID-19 is a pink flamingo.  The eventuality of a global pandemic was cautioned but ignored several times over the years.

A noted U.S. defense expert, Frank Hoffman introduced the Pink Flamingo, as “a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces.” Hoffman says that to deal with it, one must be aware of one’s lack of predictive ability and biases. One must “build in robustness and breadth to a military that will have to deal with unanticipated or just blindly ignored threats.” Hoffman argues for preparedness and resilience. 

In this, we have sadly displayed neither.

On this pink flamingo, we have — in addition to the Secretary of Health’s confusion — failed to flatten the epidemiological curve. Our recoveries are hopelessly trying to catch up with infection and death. We blew our chance at taking advantage of the long and strict lockdown to prevent further community transmission. We failed to use the lockdown to prepare for economic recovery. We scored the lowest among the ASEAN 6 in global pandemic preparedness ranking. We blamed our people as “pasaway” even as they lost their jobs and quietly suffered the ineptitude of our health sector. Four months into this pandemic war, the end remains unclear.

We did not know ourselves and our capabilities. Some of our leaders do not even acknowledge our unseen enemy. 

As Sun Tzu cautioned us: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

In wartime, nations establish alliances to weaken or exhaust a common enemy’s men and arms. Strategies are crucial in choosing and fighting battles on several fronts and in claiming interior lines.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu also cautioned; “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

No one among us would wish a long, protracted war. But this will always be a possibility when we are picking and wasting energies on untimely fights that further divide and cause discord among a public that must battle a common enemy.