Careful Obama

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag - The Freeman

It is all over the news in the Philippines. If nobody screws up plans, President Rodrigo Duterte will meet US president Barack Obama in the sidelines of next week's Asean Summit in Laos. There is a sense of heightened expectation over that meeting, fanned in no small measure by US State Department and White House spokesmen advancing the current human rights situation in the Philippines as a likely point of discussion between the two leaders.

No two views on the current human rights situation in the Philippines can be as divergent as the ones held by either leader. But if you think Obama can traipse into the room and talk Duterte into budging from his hardline position against illegal drugs, you better think again. This early, Duterte already warned that if Obama broaches the subject, the American president will have to listen first because he, Duterte, will take the first crack at talking about human rights.

Obama may be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, but Duterte is scrappy and unconventional. If protocol dictates they be seated a few feet apart, somebody better make sure they remain that way. Besides - and this is important - Obama is on the way out while Duterte is still on his way in. That pretty much evens up things a bit.

In his first two months in office, Duterte has done more than any other Philippine president in fulfilling his campaign promises. Obama will bow out of office on January 20, leaving behind a United States that is bitterly divided, and driven into seriously considering a guy like Donald Trump, in a display of frustration over failed promises that is unprecedented in US electoral history.

To be sure, Duterte has been criticized for the methods he employed in pursuing his number one campaign promise, which is to rid the country of illegal drugs. But the criticisms come from predictable and expected sources - the Roman Catholic Church, human rights advocates, Duterte's political enemies, and a foreign press too quick to make headlines of a man stealing a mango or a breeze blowing up a woman's dress (give Lord Laro's "Foreign Press" a try on YouTube).

Here is the thing. Duterte didn't ask to be president. He told Filipinos not to vote for him if they didn't agree with his plans. Instead, 16 million people voted for him in a democratic process that was the cleanest, quickest, most honest and most peaceful in Philippine history. Duterte is not going to shortchange that vote of confidence. Certainly not on the say-so of those watching safely from afar and couldn't care less if illegal drugs drives the Philippines all the way to Hell.

Duterte has no obligation to appease those who were never with him anyway. Take the Roman Catholic Church. During the campaign, it issued nothing less than a pastoral letter asking Filipinos to reject Duterte. If a country that is roughly 80 percent Catholic chooses to ignore nothing less than the pastoral letter of its predominant church, then it is clear what its sentiments are and where they lie.

Obama better be careful what he tells Duterte because Duterte embodies the sovereign will of the Filipino people, a will he has so far carried out faithfully. Having failed his own people, and the expectations of his allies, Obama can no longer invoke moral authority and make demands the way America used to. There is no longer a crisis situation anywhere in the world where the United States remains firmly on top of.

Recent statements by US secretary of state John Kerry not only tend to support this view, they make it even clearer. Ahead of another gathering, the G20 Summit in China, Kerry said China and the Philippines must abide by the UN arbitral court ruling favoring the Philippines in its South China Sea dispute with China. That is doubletalk at its most ignominious. Why tell the Philippines? It won the court ruling, for God's sake. It is to China that Kerry should address his nonsense.

But Kerry went on, saying there is no military solution to the dispute. Is Kerry even wide awake? China has long solved the problem militarily, using warships to shoo Filipino fishermen and building artificial island garrisons from where it launches naval patrols. But Kerry, reflecting American weakness, cannot single out China, preferring the Philippines to China at its own expense. That is why Duterte is now willing to talk to China and is more excited to meet Vladimir Putin instead.



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