President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is a foul-mouthed boor who has authorized a campaign of extra-judicial murders of those suspected of drug dealing that has resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths. The US administration has raised concerns about the violations of human rights in the Philippines.
I have mentioned before that the US is hardly in a position to sanctimoniously lecture other people on the evils of extra-judicial killings given its own murders of so many people all around the world. But the leaders of most of the countries so criticized cannot throw that back at the US because of the economic and military clout that the US has. It has taken an uncouth murderer like Duterte to say what I suspect many others would like to but cannot.
For example when Duterte was scheduled to meet with president Obama on the sidelines of the G20 meeting that took place in China recently, there was speculation that Obama would question him about the extrajudicial killings during a private meeting that was scheduled between the two leaders.
President Obama hinted that he might cancel a meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had publicly warned him not to raise questions about alleged death squad operations in his country against suspected drug dealers.
If Obama were to raise the issue during their scheduled meeting during an international gathering in Laos, “son of a bitch, I will swear at you,” Duterte said Monday during a news conference before leaving the Philippines.
He is a leader of a sovereign country and is answerable only to the Filipino people, Duterte said, and Obama must be respectful.
More than 2,000 alleged drug dealers and users have been killed since Duterte launched a war on drugs after taking office on June 30.
These extrajudicial killings are abominable and Duterte deserves to be roundly condemned for them. But how would Americans react if Duterte questioned Obama about the propriety if his own extrajudicial killings using drones and the US’s use of torture, black sites, CIA assassinations, indefinite detentions without trial, and other violations of human rights? It is only because the US has got used to getting away with lecturing other countries about how they should behave even as it does the same or even worse things that the statements of people like Duterte come as a shock.
Tom Smith says that Obama’s criticisms might have carried more weight if the US had not in the past supported the wrongdoing of other Filipino leaders. Historian Shelton Woods writes that there is a long history behind Duterte’s attack on Obama that is based on the conflicted relationships between the two countries and anger at the long US support for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Within the past year, President Duterte has spoken ill of Pope Francis and labeled the U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg a “gay son of a whore.”
Unfortunately, the global press has focused on Duterte cursing at Obama rather than what he said just before. He spoke rather eloquently about leading a sovereign nation and answering only to that nation’s citizens. He noted that he was not a slave and had no master.
President Duterte’s ribald comments are rooted in Philippine history. In insulting the pope, he, in essence, struck at 350 years of Spanish colonial rule. As the famous Phillipine writer León María Guerrero noted, “The history of Spain in the Philippines begins and ends with the friar.”
After attacking Obama, Duterte claimed he meant nothing personal against the U.S. president or his mother. But the reality is that Obama, like the pope, represents a colonial master. The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, and I’d argue that America was not as benevolent toward Filipinos as some history books claim.
President Duterte is not a historian. But like most Filipinos, he is aware that the U.S. continued to support President Ferdinand Marcos even after he had lost the mandate of his citizens. Marcos’ administration was rumored to be occupied by individuals interested in filling their bank accounts through nefarious means. It took the 1983 assassination of popular opposition leader Benigno Aquino to finally convince President Reagan that a time had come to step back from supporting Marcos.
Duterte is nothing if not erratic, making incendiary comments and later saying that he was not sorry for his comments, and then making them again. Just a few days ago, Duterte went after Obama again, saying he could “go to hell”. This NPR report by Jackie Northam quotes analysts describing Duterte’s behavior.
JONAH BLANK: There is no filter for Duterte. Whatever he happens to be feeling at any moment comes right out of his mouth.
NORTHAM: Jonah Blank, an Asia analyst at the Rand Corporation, says Duterte will often back off those statements shortly afterwards.
BLANK: And that’s not the way political leaders typically function, so the U.S. has to try to figure out, is this policy, or is this just a rash statement?
[JEFF} SMITH: He doesn’t understand the importance of words and how much a president’s speech and language can affect the trajectory of long-term alliance.
Does all this remind you of anyone else?
If some of us think Donald Trump is a national embarrassment, one might wonder how Filipinos feel about their president. (As an aside, why is it not spelled ‘Philippinos’ for consistency?) Woods notes that Duterte currently has a 91% approval rating in his nation, suggesting that he has been even more successful than Trump in tapping into a deep vein of anger and resentment and fear that has made Filipinos look for a leader with dictatorial tendencies.
If by some chance Donald Trump were to become president, one wonders what a meeting between the two would be like. The spectacle of one boorish, prickly, insult-spewing, dominance–seeking septuagenarian meeting with his mirror image would make for riveting viewing. They could show it on pay-per-view and get enormous ratings.