Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the so-called “Asian Donald Trump”–which I honestly think is a little bit racist because, hey, this guy already got elected president–has been in the news a lot lately, mostly I think intentionally. You might remember a couple of weeks ago when he maybe/probably called Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore” (I don’t know anything about Tagalog but I guess the phrase he used can be translated either way) and then hilariously tried to take it back to avoid being snubbed by Obama at the ASEAN conference (he got snubbed anyway). We all laughed at the funny cussing man who got his comeuppance for being vulgar, but here’s the thing: there’s actually not much to laugh about when it comes to Rodrigo Duterte, who is a dangerously unhinged guy.
Duterte doesn’t like drugs. Fair enough, just say no or whatever. But Duterte also doesn’t like drug users, and he apparently doesn’t see much use for drug rehab, otherwise he wouldn’t constantly be telling people that they should feel free to go vigilante and just kill any drug users they happen across. In his previous jobs as prosecutor and mayor of Davao City, a UN investigation found that he was “supportive” of extrajudicial killings by something called the Davao Death Squads. He frequently, openly muses about killing people himself, though there’s no evidence he’s actually tried that since the time, by his own admission, he shot a fellow law student and somehow didn’t go to prison over it. You’d hope that being elected president would maybe soften a person up a bit, but it really hasn’t, and just today he offered that he would be “happy” to kill three million drug users in his country, and he cited Hitler as a role model to boot:
In a rambling speech on his arrival in Davao City after a visit to Vietnam, Duterte told reporters that he had been “portrayed to be a cousin of Hitler” by critics.
Noting that Hitler had murdered millions of Jews, Duterte said, “There are three million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I’d be happy to slaughter them.
“If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have …,” he said, pausing and pointing to himself.
“You know my victims. I would like (them) to be all criminals to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.”
He seems like the kind of guy who, if he cornered you at a party, you’d fake getting sick in order to get away from him. He’s like that guy except he’s also got blood on his hands. Nice guy.
Now, Duterte was popularly elected in May–albeit with about 39% of the vote in a five person race–so clearly this is what a plurality of the Philippine people want. But a leader who endorses extra-judicial violence, even directed against criminals, isn’t a big believer in freedom and human rights, and so he’s not somebody the United States, with its abiding commitment to both of those things (just ask us), should be doing business with. He’s also somebody who seems likely to apply extra-legal tactics in other facets of his administration, like such as keeping himself in power and stifling political opposition, which makes him a bad ally even if your only concern is preserving stability. Then again, as I’ve written over and over in this space, the United States isn’t actually committed to either of those principles when push comes to shove. Washington’s long-standing ties to Manila and its desire to contain China by encircling it with close American allies have meant that, rather than challenge Duterte’s human rights record the Obama administration has stuck to the “strong concerns”-type rhetoric it uses for US allies/serial human rights abusers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. But this Hitler thing was splashy enough to make it hard for Washington not to respond a little more forcefully than that. But how to do that and preserve its alliance with the Philippines?
Well, here’s the thing: Duterte doesn’t even really want to be a US ally anymore. He’s as much as said so on multiple occasions, though he’s managed to be more subtle about that than he’s been in his comments about killing people in cold blood. For example:
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he has decided to “cross the Rubicon” in his ties with the United States and will open trade alliances and offer long-term land leases to “the other side of the ideological barrier,” China and Russia.
The U.S. State Department responded that it wouldn’t stand in Manila’s way of seeking deeper ties with Beijing and Moscow. But it maintained that the U.S.-Philippine alliance endures despite the barrage of negative commentary from Duterte since he took power in June.
Duterte told reporters he was “not really” breaking ties with the U.S., his country’s long-time treaty ally, but will open all areas of trade and commerce to China and Russia. It would not include military alliances, he said.
That last part is a hedge, sure, but it’s pretty clear that Duterte sees his future, and the future of his country, in the Russia-China orbit more so than the US orbit. Unless this is just posturing for domestic political reasons, which seems like a strange choice in a country where the US has a 92% favorable rating compared to 54% for China. Or maybe it’s posturing to try to demonstrate to Washington that Manila doesn’t need the US, in order to ensure that the US stays quiet as he does whatever death squad-y things he plans on doing in the years to come.
So here’s my thought: let him go. This is a chance for the US to shed a guy who is already a problematic ally and has the potential to become much worse, and who keeps intimating that he’d like to not be an ally anymore, particularly if we’re going to occasionally nag him about his death squads, God will you just GET OVER IT ALREADY. I’m not saying you punish the Philippines or anything, just that you don’t bend over backwards for the guy. If Duterte doesn’t want to hold any more joint naval exercises, don’t hold any. If he wants US forces out of his country, pull them out. But later, if his outreach to China doesn’t work out as planned or militants in the south start to gain ground, maybe it’s not in America’s immediate interests to rush back in and help out. Then Washington can feel free to actually take a genuine hard line against Duterte’s human rights abuses. Imagine that. And maybe, by doing all this, you can actually force Duterte to moderate. Remember that 92% favorable rating? Used judiciously against a president who won office with less than 40% of the vote, that could be a powerful tool.
Divesting ourselves of the Philippines would come at a cost. The US-Philippine alliance is an important part of that Chinese containment strategy in the South China Sea, and the leading southern Philippine militant group, Abu Sayyaf, declared its affiliation with ISIS back in 2014. But, and I say this with all due respect to the Philippine people, if The World’s Only Superpower™ can’t put together an East Asia strategy or a global counter-terrorism strategy without relying on the Philippines, then what the hell good is being a superpower? It gets difficult to reconcile all the bluster about American might with Washington’s almost neurotic need to stay in places where it’s not wanted and to ally with governments that cause it nothing but trouble, because we somehow depend on them. The value of American global hegemony is already pretty dubious, but if maintaining it means supporting people like Rodrigo Duterte, then I really have to wonder why we bother.