Being Secretary of Defense

Orly Mercado

Posted on November 10, 2006

Politics and Job Security

The US Secretary of Defense has become the first casualty of the recent shift in the political tectonic plates in Washington DC. Almost everybody is analyzing it. We all have opinions about it. But there is yet another Secretary of Defense who has found his job on the line because of political developments.

The Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines Avelino Cruz has recently resigned. This after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s efforts at amending the Constitution were dealt a serious blow by the Supreme Court. Secretary Cruz reportedly had a hand in the decision. I am not conversant with the facts of this controversy. As a former Defense Secretary myself, I have avoided making any comment on the matter. I have avoided being drawn into partisan political discussions since being stationed abroad. But as sufficient time has passed since I myself resigned from that post in 2001, and quiet work in the academe allows me enough time to ponder things, I decided to share my thoughts on this issue.

It seems pretty obvious, but most people have to be reminded that the post of Secretary of Defense (SND) is a political position. In the Philippines, he is appointed by the President and is his/her alter ego. This appointment has to be confirmed by Congress through the Commission on Appointments. You can’t have a more political process than that.

I think that the imperative of having a military that is “apolitical” is what disturbs some. Should the Secretary be disengaged from the dynamics of real politic to ensure the impartiality of the armed forces? Is that possible?

The SND is the head of the military establishment. His main role is not merely to be the chief administrator of a bureaucracy that includes the biggest bureau in his department – the armed forces. He is the main catalyst in formulating and implementing defense and security policy. This task cannot be done by the military alone. In fact, serious political skills are required to be able to distill this policy from inputs from the widest range of sectors in the country. The military component is obviously critical but cannot stand alone. The lessons of our long experience in counterinsurgency clearly say so.

His political skills come in handy not only in ensuring that they get their share in the national budget that Congress has to enact, but in keeping the promotion and assignment process free from outside interference.

The SND is the defense chief but he is not the top gun. The moment he plays soldier, he is on a slippery slope. It is for this reason that a civilian is most suited for the job. Of course we know of a civilian by the name of Donald Rumsfeld who micro-managed the invasion of Iraq and we also know what that led to. Former generals who are appointed to the post can also slide down that slope, when they subconsciously restart their military careers only this time with a “bigger command”.

The most telling argument against appointing former military officers to the post of SND is how they appear to be stymied in instituting badly needed reforms. But that is another matter.

Even as the Secretary cannot avoid being “political” ironically, his most important role is to insulate the military from partisan political activity. The challenge is in defining what “partisan politics” is, and what constitutes the larger common good.

This is the dilemma I faced in early 2001. As evidence was spilling out in the impeachment hearings against President Joseph Estrada I kept saying we should follow the procedures and wait for the verdict. It was only when the process unraveled and there was a real threat of violence and a split in the military that I decided to march with the generals to EDSA and announce that we were withdrawing our support of the Commander-in-Chief. Estrada left Malacanang Palace and his presidency ended.

After President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sworn into office she asked me to stay on as SND, I did. However, when it was reported that former Chief of Staff Lisandro Abadia was to join the Cabinet as National Security Adviser, I immediately went to her and tendered my resignation. I had been at odds with Abadia over the Retirement and Separation Benefits System (RSBS). I had initiated an investigation, which I later turned over to the Senate, into the anomalous deals he was involved in. I was convinced that Abadia and other high-ranking generals were bleeding the RSBS dry. I felt all my efforts will be for naught if I lose credibility with the ordinary soldiers who were the biggest victims of these scams. I did not want to be seen with him in the Cabinet. Only recently, Secretary Cruz announced the closure of the retirement fund by the end of the year.

This however was not the first time I resigned as Defense Secretary. While our administration was pursuing the campaign to dismantle the MILF’s main camp Abubakar in Mindanao, President Estrada made a disparaging remark about me to Rizal governor Ito Ynares and Congressman Ronnie Zamora to the effect that I was busy projecting myself in the media for a possible run for higher office. Upon being told by the duo, I went to him and submitted my resignation and that of my wife Susy, who was then Undersecretary of Health. He was caught by surprise. He mumbled something about it being just “loose talk” and that he had full trust in me. I reminded him of how important his support was in running the military establishment and pursuing reforms. I stressed that if my detractors as much as suspected that his support for what I was doing was not firm, it could unravel. He put his arm on my shoulder and walked me to the door of his office.

When I got back to my office in Camp Aguinaldo, I checked my closet if the empty boxes I used to bring my personal things were still there. I knew I would need them someday soon. One should never develop attachments to public office.

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