Philippines’ Duterte lashes out at Obama in profane tirade
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out at President Obama before a meeting scheduled for Sept. 6. (Reuters)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is sorry he insulted President Obama — sort of. He now “regrets” that calling Obama “son of a whore” caused so much controversy.
On Monday, Duterte lashed out at the United States for raising questions about a “drug war” that has killed 2,400 Filipinos. The United States responded by canceling a meeting. Today, Duterte tried to walk the comment back. “Not personal,” he said.
The incident, unsurprisingly, is making headlines. Although Duterte is fond of swearing — the man swore at the pope — it’s not every day that you hear a sitting president insult an ally. It’s certainly not every day that you hear a sitting president say the words “son of a whore.”
But the story is about so much more than swear words — for two key reasons.
First, this is about the drug war, not Duterte’s language.
When Duterte was running for office, he promised a full-out war on drugs. What he has delivered is a war on suspected drug users, dealers and their families. An estimated 2,400 people have been killed in two months.
The tidal wave of extrajudicial and vigilante killings are devastating the Philippines. Recent victims include a 4-year-old girl out to get popcorn with her father, and a 5-year old shot to death in her family’s store.
Duterte is not particularly interested in talking about human rights — he has said as much. Now, because he cursed out Obama’s mother, he doesn’t have to; instead of apologizing for overseeing executions, he can say sorry for his dirty mouth.
Second, U.S.-Philippine ties are no sideshow.
Duterte may find it amusing to use an anti-gay slur to refer to the U.S. ambassador and to insult Obama’s mother, but his comments play to a potent strain of anti-U.S. sentiment — sentiment that could shift the balance of power in the South China Sea.
The Philippines is a former U.S. colony. About 25 years ago, Filipino politicians fought to expel U.S. forces, promising to free the country from foreign domination.
Now, with China pressing its claims to most of the South China Sea, some — but not all — want U.S. forces back. An agreement backed by former president Benigno Aquino III, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, would place more U.S. ships at Philippine ports.
China, of course, is not eager for a U.S. return. Beijing was furious that Aquino took the South China Sea dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. And the country is pushing hard — very hard — for the Philippines to ignore the ruling and opt for China-Philippine talks. Duterte has shown some willingness to work with Beijing.
Duterte’s insults may seem trivial, But when they lead to the cancellation of high-level U.S.-Philippine meetings, leaving the door open for China, they are not.