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America Doesn't Need To Do Anything About Duterte

More than a decade ago, before smartphones, clickbait and the emergence of social media giants like Facebook, one of the web's best humor writers penned a satirical blog dubbed "Kim Jong Il, The Illmatic."

The blog featured "conversations" between the late North Korean dictator and cartoonish versions of other world leaders, conducted via AOL Instant Messenger -- the fictional Kim would desperately try to get the attention of President George W. Bush, who typed in all caps. He'd trade insults with then-Sen. John Kerry, shrug off Saddam Hussein's increasingly desperate pleas for asylum in North Korea, and troll Vice President Dick Cheney.

"We don't have to do anything to kill you," the fake Kim Jong Il wrote in one AIM "conversation" with Cheney, who's had five heart attacks. "Bacon is doing the job for us."

When it comes to volatile Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, the U.S. should follow the lead of the fake Kim Jong Il and take a hands-off approach to his provocations and increasingly pitched rhetoric. The U.S. doesn't need to do anything to undermine Duterte -- he's doing a fine job of it himself.

On Sept. 5, Duterte famously called President Barack Obama a "son of a whore," likely in an effort to score political points within his country by standing up to the big, bad United States.

The very public insult led the U.S. to cancel a meeting between Obama and Duterte. Duterte's spokesman quickly apologized and said Duterte regretted that the "son of a whore" remark "came across as a personal attack."

But even as Duterte's spokesman was doing damage control, the volatile Filipino president was pulling a Mike Tyson and threatening to make a meal of insurgents in the country's south.

“They will pay. When the time comes, I will eat you in front of people,” Duterte said, according to The Guardian. “If you make me mad, in all honesty, I will eat you alive, raw.”

Duterte is the former mayor of Davao, a city of 1.6 million on the Philippines' second-largest island. He has no foreign policy experience, and was voted into office after promising to crack down on crime and corruption.

But he's also been accused of ruling with a heavy hand reminiscent of dictators like Saddam Hussein. Since taking office in June, Duterte has presided over a purge of suspected drug dealers, ordering police to kill some 3,000 of his own citizens without due process.

Some of them disappear, some of them are found dead on the streets, and some are balled up in packing tape and left to rot with signs like "Don’t follow me, I’m a criminal," according to Time magazine.

It's those extra-judicial killings that Obama has a problem with, and the U.S. president has said as much. Duterte bristled at the criticism, saying the U.S. doesn't have a right to lecture him.

And on Sept. 15, it became clear why Duterte took Obama's criticism personally. Edgar Matobato, a 57-year-old self-described assassin, testified in a nationally televised senate hearing that he worked for years on one of Duterte's "liquidation squads," killing people the then-mayor identified as criminals, as well as his political opponents.

The details are gruesome. Matobato told Filipino lawmakers that, on Duterte's orders, he fed one suspected kidnapper to a crocodile, the Associated Press reported. Others were tied to concrete blocks, gutted, and thrown into the ocean. In another incident, he told lawmakers, Duterte himself killed a Filipino federal agent.

"Mayor Duterte was the one who finished him off," Matobato told lawmakers per The Guardian. "Jamisola [the justice department official] was still alive when he [Duterte] arrived. He emptied two Uzi magazines on him."

Duterte, running a classic from the dictator's playbook, has become adept at blaming foreign powers to distract from problems within his own country. But that's likely to backfire -- as the Economist notes, the Philippines has a young, English-speaking population that views the U.S. positively, as well as a middle class that has grown appreciably since Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, made tangible improvements to the country's economy.

With the unpredictable and volatile Duterte at the helm, investors are spooked and many Filipino business leaders are thinking about leaving, according to The Economist. One spooked foreigner who lives in Manila told the magazine that he fears regular people can be killed with impunity as long as they're accused of being involved with the drug trade -- and because the killings happen without due process, Duterte can simply accuse people of involvement without having to prove it.

“This didn’t happen under Aquino,” the expat said. “You didn’t feel there was a group of people who could kill someone and not go to jail.”

Others have watched nervously as Duterte has removed businessmen and other leaders who are politically opposed to him.

“Everyone is scared,” one corporate executive told The Economist. “None of the big business groups will stand up to him. They’re all afraid their businesses will be taken away.”

In the meantime, Duterte's government seems to want it both ways -- to paint the U.S. as a domineering and malevolent force while continuing to receive U.S. financial aid and military assistance.

On Sept. 15, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said his country won't accept criticism from Obama or other world leaders concerned about Duterte's extra-judicial killings.

"You do not go to the Philippines and say 'I am going to give you something; I am going to help you grow, but this is the check list you must comply with -- we will lecture you on human rights,'" Yasay said.

On the contrary, Mr. Yasay, the U.S. can and does put preconditions on financial assistance, and the Philippines gets about $200 million in direct aid from the U.S. annually, not counting the other resources the U.S. devotes to helping the country.

The U.S. shouldn't directly intervene in the Philippines, and it should allow the U.N. to take the lead on pressuring Duterte over his alleged human rights abuses. But the U.S. can and should close its purse strings and pull its military support until the Philippines elects a more stable leader.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Guardian (2), The Economist, Time / Photo credit: U.S. Deptartment of State/Flickr via Wikipedia

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