Can we repair the breach after the DU30-Obama run-in?



Some Asean diplomats have asked me what I think the Philippine government should do to repair the perceived damage to Philippine-American relations arising from President Duterte’s scandalous and unprovoked attack on President Obama and the latter’s unsurprising response—canceling a previously agreed Tuesday meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit conference in Vientiane, Laos.

The diplomats fear that one of the most enduring partnerships in Asia Pacific may have been unduly damaged, not by any Philippine policy that offends a crucial US security, economic or political interest, but simply by reckless words of questionable worth, uttered without any justifiable motive or any palpable benefit to the Filipino people or their government.

I have no particular expertise to offer. Neither do I know of anyone who has. But having spent two-thirds of my life, in various capacities, trying to help mold the course of public policy toward the most desirable future for all Filipinos, and having done my share in the last campaign to expose an unqualified alien whom many had wanted to support for President, I am deeply pained by this cockamamie turn of events. So I do not hesitate to offer my two cents’ worth.

Leaving the American orbit
Some parties have rained wild encomiums and panegyrics upon DU30 for cursing Obama during a press conference, and for supposedly taking himself out of America’s imperial orbit by declaring that he’s not an American puppet, and that the Philippines is no longer a colony nor a vassal state. Indeed, ours is a world removed from the one inhabited by Gen. Carlos P. Romulo in the ‘40s or Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong in the ‘60s, who both tangled with Soviet big guns over the meaning of freedom, democracy and human rights.

In 1948, at the 3rd UN General Assembly in Paris, Romulo’s unembarrassed pro-Americanism prompted the Soviet delegate Andrei Vishinsky to call him a “little man from a little country.” To which Romulo replied, “It’s the duty of the little Davids of this world to fling the pebbles of truth in the eyes of the blustering Goliaths and force them to behave.” This silenced the Soviet demagogue. In 1960, at the 902nd UNGA in New York, Sumulong’s gratuitous attack on the Soviet Union caused Premier Nikita Khrushchev to call him “a jerk, a stooge and a lackey of US imperialism” and to bang his shoe at his desk. This silenced the Filipino Cold Warrior.

Unrestrained praise for DU30’s reported attack on Obama obviously came from supporters who were enthralled by our President’s apparent addiction to censurable language. Despite that, there is no evidence that the Philippines has moved a quarter of an inch away from the US sphere of influence, which DU30 reportedly wants to quit. The Philippines has not rejected the US pivot to Asia, which Obama is eager to hand over to his successor.

What about EDCA?
To the contrary, DU30 assures us about the continued validity of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US. Were he still around today, the nationalist sage Claro M. Recto would probably have called EDCA unworthy of a sovereign and peace-loving Philippine state. And yet Recto never used any offensive epithet on any US president. Because EDCA is not a treaty but a mere executive agreement, DU30 can revoke it anytime, if he wants to make a dramatic show of his political “independence.” However, there has been no hint of DU30 considering it.

DU30’s desire to be seen as “independent” of any foreign power is admirable and deserves to succeed. But his words must be matched by deeds. If he is looking for a model who spoke to the US with dignity and honor without, in the least, appearing subservient or servile, he could probably take a leaf from Ferdinand Marcos. At the outset, Washington wanted to treat Marcos as some kind of a “greenhouse plant.” But although determined to be a strong and dependable US ally, he was even more determined to stand on his own as a Filipino leader. And he showed it by deed.

What Marcos did
In October of 1966, at the behest of the US government, Marcos hosted the Manila summit conference of the seven Vietnam war allies. In attendance were Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, South Korean President Park Chung Hee, New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, Thai Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn, US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, South Vietnamese Chairman Nguyen Van Thieu, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and, of course, Marcos. Accompanied by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Ambassador at Large Averell Harriman, Johnson tried to bamboozle the allies into sending combat troops to Vietnam.

At one point, Johnson was seen passing a small note to Marcos. Marcos picked up the note, read it, then rolled it into a small ball and put it inside an empty matchbox, which he placed on the ashtray between him and Johnson. Despite LBJ’s rhetoric, Marcos resisted the call for combat troops and sent the non-combat Philippine Civic Action Group (PHILCAG) instead. That same year, Marcos sought the reduction of the term of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement from 99 years to the next 25 years of the unexpired period.

Later, Marcos asked that the bases be known as Philippine military bases, under the command of a Filipino commander, and over which the Philippine flag alone should fly, except in front of the US barracks where the Stars and Stripes may also fly. Finally, Marcos demanded that the “rent-free” provision of the agreement be re-interpreted to allow the US to provide an Economic Support Fund to the Philippine government.

In 1975, Marcos accepted the “One-China” policy and opened diplomatic relations with Beijing—well ahead of the US. In 1976, he normalized relations with Moscow.

The cost and consequence of independence
Ultimately, this nationalist and independent posture had its consequences. Marcos was toppled in a 1986 civilian- and US-backed military mutiny after it became clear that he would not extend the term of the bases agreement after its expiration in 1991. One of Cory Aquino’s bravest acts was to conclude a new treaty extending the bases by another 10 years, but this was rejected by members of the Senate, majority of whom had been elected in 1987 largely, if not solely, because they were Cory’s candidates.

The defeat of Cory’s treaty prompted her son PNoy, who became president in 2010, to exclude the Senate from participating in the EDCA, despite the clear provision of the Constitution that after 1991, “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state.”

Then the Supreme Court declared the EDCA “constitutional” despite this patent violation of the Constitution. This is consistent with the High Court’s practice of never voiding any law or agreement in which the US government has a declared interest or involvement. “Political independence” from the US would concededly manifest itself not only in policy decisions by the Executive but also in judicial rulings by the High Court. This has not yet come to pass. So the White House has reason to insist that despite the Duterte-Obama muddle, Philippine-US relations stand on solid rock.

Independent yes, but no need to go down the gutter
Philippine-US relations need not hit the rocks just because DU30 wants to be independent vis-à-vis the major powers. We are, as DU30 puts it, no longer a vassal state. But there is no need to create personal antagonisms and animosities between heads of state on non-state issues. No particular group, whether in the US or in the Philippines, should be allowed any reason to see DU30 as an obstacle to the most civil and constructive state-to-state relations.

There is now an attempt to make it appear that DU30 never called Obama the “son of a whore” and that it’s all the media’s doing. This search for a scapegoat and finger-pointing is normal and inevitable, but the media, for all its faults, cannot be made wholly responsible. What is clear is that DU30 uses gutter language rather casually, without premeditation, and the White House is convinced he had insulted Obama and that Obama’s cancellation of their Vientiane meeting had caused some foreign investors to pull out from the Philippines, and stock prices to tumble. Those who have watched the Philippine economy ride the global storm are now jittery: is a politically orchestrated credit downgrade in the horizon, and what will be its final effects upon the nation?

No one is saying that DU30 cursed Obama because of what Obama had said about him. Obama had said absolutely nothing about him. Rather DU30’s reputed cuss word arose in the course of answering a newspaperman’s question on what Obama might say to him during their proposed meeting. The question did not deserve an elaborate answer; he could have simply said the question was hypothetical and that one did not answer hypothetical questions. But he did answer the question, and he said more than a mouthful.

Talk less, behave better
There are several lessons to be learned here. The TV camera and the microphone may have become DU30’s Achilles’ heel. Since there is no way to ban them, DU30 must read everything he says in public, like Lee Kuan Yew when he was prime minister of Singapore. Lee had the best academic credentials among the prime ministers of the British Commonwealth; he could deliver a lecture on almost any subject without a written paper. But he never said anything on behalf of his government without reading a text. This was to avoid any misquotation or misunderstanding of his statement. This would help the President avoid all the expletives and gutter language that have become the source of so much unnecessary trouble.

And he should also learn to deal with the press better. I once sat with Prime Minister Lee when he presided over a news conference during a state visit to the Philippines. He did not answer questions that did not deserve any answer, and he virtually chewed off the head of a foreign correspondent for asking a rather stupid question. DU30 should not hesitate to do the same. He should help educate the media on what issues to discuss in press conferences. But he should be less hesitant to keep his peace whenever he has very little to say on serious questions.


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  1. There was no antagonism whatsoever occurred in the course of anticipating the likely topics to be discusssed between DU30 and Obama but out of disliking the issue an expression most favored by DU30 was unleashed. There was no overstepping of one’s soveriegn integrity which the conterpart missed in understanding the cause. President Obama later said that he does not take the expletive laden remarks by DU30 as personal. President Obama also exacerbated the tense situation when he said that President Duterte is a “coloured guy” it meant recist. Both has expressed its dislikes on the subject but personal. The media was trying to ignite a fire between the two guys to their amusement by doing so it become a bonanza of some sort of the readers. Me in my opinion I am grateful and thankful at least we have a leader that can stand aganist anybody regardless of capacities who will attempt to trample our dignity and our race. Some previous personalities on the same capacitiy may have signature like DU30 but DU30 has greater superiority in comparison.

  2. Right on the head!

    We all hope d30 succeeds but he can certainly be more prudent and be the valiant RP Pres who will not shame the country with his profanities!

  3. By now Filipinos should have gotten used to Duterte and his ad libs, reliable journalist should have at least seen through the thoughts expressed by Duterte and would have conscientiously edited out any naunces in what had been expressed, media (print or otherwise) can be made as a tool to influence general public opinion, and it is bad enough that the one who came out with wrong interpretation is a Filipino, this journalist did not do the country any justice, including himself for which he is a subject of, nor did he make Filipinos proud of our standing on the international scene. Sad that there are Filipinos who would rather defend a foreign head of state or leader, but would readily put down one of its own and whose only aim is to chart an independent foreign policy, away from external influence – irresponsible reporting could lead to the downfall of leaders and the demise of a sovereign state or nation.

  4. Marlaine Monteverde on

    The problem it was not Dutertr who created the rift. Our irresponsible media did that themselves. Have you listened to the full video of that presscon? If you did youwould know that there was no cussing of Mr. Obama. It was media who made it appear like that. He was actually expressing exasperation on the journos who asked a very disrespectful question. My take on what he said was that we should know where we stand as an independent sovereign nation. It does not help also that the US, UN, and Humar Rights are not respecting our government’s stand and wisdom on how to handle our own problems. Instead of talking direct to our government, they are using the media to air our their unverified beliefs about an elected president and a sovereign country. So, I am standing tall on the pronouncements of the President on that particular instance. The message is loud and should be clear to all Filipinos. We should stand as an independent sovereign country. Nobody, should intervene on how we do our business. Our government should not answer to anyone except to the Filipino people. Of course I agree that rough words should not be uttered at all times especially in public. Good manners is always a must.

  5. Good paper as always Mr. Tatad.
    Nevertheless, I believe that it is the White House which first mentioned the need to discuss human rights related to the anti-drug drive in the Philippines.
    President Duterte has all the rights to be upset by President Obama’s hypocritical “need” to discuss an issue which the US blatantly ignores when it is for its own advantage. Just think about the killings by drones in foreign countries during Obama’s presidency.
    Now of course, there are various ways to express one’s displeasure and President Duterte has a habit of mixing very crude truth with very crude language.
    I also watched the statements of President Duterte before his departure to Vientiane very carefully. I do not think that he said “son of a whore” as a qualifier but rather as an expletive to start the phrase. Maybe I am wrong, but as you wrote, the debate goes on.

    • It’s never what was said. It how the recipient of the message felt about it. Just like sexual harassment, never based on the intent of who said it but how the recipient felt. Pag masama ang dating, masama talaga.

  6. emmanuel pagalan on

    Mr. tatad, you have been in the pinnacle of your public service during marcos time and what you have done to the country? you were a lap dog of marcos. you have no right to lecture him on what to do and what not to do. look at your self,you should be ashamed. Duterte was elected by a resounding majority, you should consider that. it is we the majority who elected him and we have faith in him and think he can change the country into a better philippines than you were and some of your elks.

    • Emmanuel will be first in line to drink the kool-aid.

      Pnoy if you can believe Comelec got 20 million votes when he was elected, does that mean he was a better president than Duterte ?

  7. Can you please help our president and be a part of his Communications team who are still in the dark?

  8. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    08 September 2016

    I do hope that one Malacanang assistant of Der Fuhrer Rodrigo Duterte summons the courage to show this column of Francisco S. Tatad to his boss because the suggestions here have the potential to improve Duterte’s dealings with ambassadors, the Pope, and with heads of states like President Barack Obama.

    Perhaps an “Old dog” like Duterte could still learn a few lessons in “Good manners and right conduct,” which he ought to have imbibed in the elementary grades. But that may have been at least 60 years ago, and it is possible that he may already have forgotten all of those basic lessons in decent behavior.

    Now, he has become a Neanderthal, or virtually a barbarian, who is distinguished by his proclivity for being uncouth and vulgar. When pissed off, he routinely lashes out with his stock “Putang ina mo!” [“Son of a whore!], obviously without THINKING.

    His impetuous nature will cost him, both personally and officially as President–as it already has in terms of frayed relations with the UN Secretary General, the US ambassador to the Philippines, Pope Francis, and President Barack Obama.


  9. This is one advice that I fully agree and it is imperative for Pres. Duterte or his henchmen to take note of this if they have not realized the blunder the country has made.