The White House has confirmed that President Donald Trump has invited President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the United States. The invitation has provoked criticism from human rights groups, among them Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been unrelenting in its condemnation of the toll in lives of Mr. Duterte’s “war” on drugs. It is widely presumed that Mr. Trump supports the Duterte approach, which could be the basis for a meeting of the minds of the two unconventional heads of state.
An HRW statement issued immediately after the White House announcement assumed that the visit, if it does happen, will be a state visit, and denounced the invitation as an endorsement of Mr. Duterte’s policies, particularly on the country’s illegal drug problem and the killings that have assumed epidemic proportions since Mr. Duterte implemented his anti-drug campaign in Davao City nationwide.
The White House, however, said that if the visit does materialize, it won’t be an endorsement of Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs policy and the human rights violations that have accompanied its implementation, but a meeting to firm up “the US-Philippines alliance,” and to engage the Philippines in the US effort to further isolate North Korea, which has remained unmoved by the US’ show of force in the Peninsula and has announced further testing of its capacity to launch nuclear-armed missiles.
Malacanang has also confirmed the invitation, but Mr. Duterte seemed evasive when asked if he will accept it. He said he couldn’t make any promises due to his tight schedule, which sounds like the lame excuse someone would make to avoid going. But it would be perfectly understandable if he is indeed reluctant to fly to Washington to meet Trump, if the latter’s intention in inviting Mr. Duterte to the US capital is to commit the Philippines to the US side in a confrontation that could lead to a US war with North Korea, Mr. Duterte might well be thinking that it would be interpreted by the Kim Jong-un regime as a hostile act that could provoke an attack on the Philippines, which already hosts thousands of US troops under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The late Senator Claro M. Recto warned in the 1950s of the possibility of the Philippines’ being embroiled in “the quarrels of the strong” because of the US military bases. The presence of US troops in the country today poses the same threat, and it will not do to aggravate a potential peril by Mr. Duterte’s being in the same company as Donald Trump and his ultra-hawkish advisers.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has urged North Korea for restraint — to in effect tone down its rhetoric and reconsider its decision to continue its missile tests. But Mr. Duterte would be correct in recognizing the difference between that suggestion and US martial rhetoric, which in so many words reserves the “right” to launch a first strike against a country the administration of then US President George W. Bush identified in 2002 with the “Axis of Evil” together with Iraq and Iran. (Mr. Trump insists North Korea must be “punished” for continuing its nuclear and missiles tests. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 convinced North Korea that it would be next, and led it to persist in developing its nuclear arsenal to defend itself against a probable US attack.)
In addition to putting the country even closer to harm’s way, Mr. Duterte’s going off to Washington would also fly in the face of his frequent condemnation of foreign, specifically US, interference in Philippine internal affairs and his denunciation of such instances in the Philippine experience with colonial rule and imperialism.
In behalf of its economic and strategic interests and in the arrogant belief that it knows what’s best for the peoples of the world, the US has indeed intervened in the internal affairs of sovereign countries including the Philippines for over fifty years, and shows no signs of relenting. As former US State Department analyst William Blum points out in his book Rogue State, the US has done so across the globe to frustrate, rather than support or encourage, aspirations for freedom and democracy.
The assumption that the US has the right to effect regime change anywhere informs its policies and even the views of US media — and, some would argue, of US-based human rights groups as well. Both The New York Times and Human Rights Watch, for example, presume as a given in their reports and comments on the Duterte regime the “right” of the US to keep other countries in line for violating human rights.
Mr. Duterte and his closest advisers in fact see in the criticisms against him and his administration signs of an impending attempt to remove him from office and to replace him with someone more tractable. Criticism of his human rights record is validated by such atrocities as secret police cells, police torture and extortion, the unprecedented but still rising death toll among drug users and pushers, and the presumption of guilt rather than innocence in such drug-related cases as that of Senator Leila de Lima. But as valid as these criticisms are, they could very well be used to justify regime change in the Philippines.
As seemingly cordial as the relationship between Messrs. Trump and Duterte may be, it doesn’t preclude US support for such efforts. In addition, there is Mr. Duterte’s declaration of his administration’s adoption of an independent foreign policy, which would include a halt to US-Philippines joint military exercises and even a review and eventual scuttling of the VFA and EDCA. None of these sit well with the Philippine military and its US patron.
As disturbing as Mr. Duterte’s statements on the media and human rights, his encouragement of police abuse, his close ties with the Marcoses, and his seeming obsession with declaring martial law may be — and even if we grant that his administration has become more of a problem rather than a solution to this country’s ills — it is for Filipinos and no one else to decide whether he stays or goes.
The Trump invitation can be interpreted as an attempt not only to reestablish the country’s commitment to the US imperial enterprise but also to determine how far the US can rely on Mr. Duterte to do as past Philippine Presidents have done: to be the tail to the US kite and to follow in “America’s glistening wake” (Manuel Roxas, 1946). Mr. Duterte — and the country he now governs — should and can be better than being just another card in the imperial game of high stakes nuclear poker.