WHILE I was in Europe not too long ago, an American friend asked me who, in my view, had the better chance of completing his term in office—US President Donald Trump, who has four years, or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has six? It was a curious question, but my friend wasn’t being flippant at all. I said I did not know enough of Trump and how the American system worked, but I was confident only an act of God could shorten DU30’s six-year term.
This conversation happened a few days after the Islamic State (IS)-influenced Maute terror group attacked Marawi City and DU30 proclaimed martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in all of Mindanao, while traveling in Moscow on May 23, 2017, but long before he said he was “ready to die for Marawi.”
The duo vs the world press
Apparently, the question persists in the minds of many people. The two presidents have some distinct personal similarities and similar political troubles. The London Economist’s lead editorial on February 4, 2017 (“An insurgent in the White House”) called Trump “a loose cannon…who may not last one year and will blow himself up.” Since then, the Democrats who lost the last US presidential election to the New York real estate tycoon have seized every opportunity to accuse Russia of having interfered in the US election, and Trump of having benefited from that intervention. The American media, led by The New York Times and the television networks, with the exception of Fox, have had no let-up in pressing this allegation.
On Duterte’s part, the NYTimes, in its editorial on April 26, 2017 (“Let the world condemn Duterte”), following the filing of a “communication” by Mindanao lawyer Jude Sabio, alleging crimes against humanity committed by the former mayor of Davao City, before the International Criminal Court at the Hague, said “this man must be stopped.” But DU30 has proved to be more resilient than Trump in the face of attacks from the American and European press. This is obviously because he does not have to answer to American or European voters, and also because current political developments in Mindanao have diverted public attention from his previously exclusive preoccupation—his brutal war on drugs.
The IS-influenced Maute attack on Marawi, which is now on its second month, and his martial law response have changed the political narrative in DU30’s favor. The predominantly Catholic Christian and non-violent Muslim populations clearly support his war against the IS-influenced Mautes; they have no choice but to support martial law, despite some reservations expressed by some members of the Supreme Court and others outside the court regarding its geographical coverage, which includes areas not affected by the “terrorism” (interpreted as rebellion), and questions about its validity in the face of Congress’ refusal to take the constitutional steps needed to complete and perfect the proclamation.
The SC vote and the Church
The Marawi crisis appears to have given DU30 an unexpected boost, even from those who have until now denounced the summary killing of drug suspects. The Supreme Court vote upholding Proclamation 216, despite some unresolved issues, is the most visible source of that support. Not lesser than this is the vote taken by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines during its just concluded midyear plenary session, to elect Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao as the next CBCP president. Valles is the current CBCP vice president. He will assume the presidency when Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan Socrates Villegas ends his second term on December 1, 2017.
Although the CBCP traditionally elects the vice president as its next president, there were some misgivings earlier that it would be wise to have a CBCP president coming from DU30’s own archdiocese. Given DU30’s anti-clerical and anti-Catholic stance—he has threatened “to destroy the Catholic Church,” many felt they would be imposing an unjust burden on the Archbishop of Davao if they asked him to speak to this President on a regular basis on behalf of the CBCP about the position of the Church on all issues.
For a while some of the bishops thought it would be good for the Church to relieve Valles of that awesome burden, and ask somebody else instead to do the job. Some thought of asking Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, a former CBCP president, to consider coming back. Palma had given up the customary second term as president, in order to concentrate on his duties as host of the International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu in 2016. But in the end, majority of the bishops decided that perhaps DU30 needed to work with them in addressing the Mindanao crisis.
If DU30 gives this CBCP gesture its proper value, we could look forward to a better working relationship between the government and the country’s most numerous church in the days ahead. If DU30 stops saying he would destroy the Church, no critic will have any reason to say, can this president succeed where Satan himself has failed? We could then have a deeper and more intense inter-religious dialogue and collaboration in Mindanao, in order to put an end to the IS threat and enhance the region’s overall development. With the IS structure and territorial boundaries in Syria and Iraq crumbling, we should have no problem extinguishing any sign of the so-called IS Eastern Province.
In this respect, DU30 could be luckier than Trump.
There is one other area where DU30 seems to be doing better than Trump. Both have their crew of fanatical supporters, who applaud their worst mistakes and blast at their critics. But where DU30’s disappointed supporters merely grumble behind his back, or keep their silence in the face of the most egregious mistakes, some of Trump’s own appointees go out of their way to embarrass him in public even without adequate reason for it. This came into full display following Trump’s meeting in Hamburg, Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting. In that meeting, the Western press made a capital offense of Trump shaking Putin’s hand and saying, “It’s an honor to be with you.”
It would have been unforgivable if Trump had genuflected before Putin, but to the best of our knowledge, this is a standard diplomatic amenity.
Nevertheless, it was not just the highly biased and bigoted press. Former CIA Chief John Brennan said it was “a dishonorable thing to say.” Trump’s own permanent representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley forgot her own manners and blasted the US president, not just for this diplomatic nicety, but for meeting with Putin and trying to forge a new relationship. “We cannot trust Russia and we won’t ever trust Russia,” she told CNN, openly undermining the effort of her own President. Such is the political hatred for Trump even within his own party that in the Senate, two Republican senators (Lindsay Graham, R-SC and John McCain, R-AZ) called the Trump-Putin meeting a disaster, and denounced the widely welcomed Syria ceasefire arranged by Putin and Trump, as good only for “the murderous Assad regime”
Clearly, if Trump is interested in trying to forge a new “detente” with Russia and China, there are forces within his own party who seem determined to revive the Cold War, which ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Michael Gorbachev, the last Soviet president who brought in perestroika and glasnost which eventually led to the end of the Cold War, recalled in an interview with Tass, that the same reaction Trump was getting in the US was the same reaction he got in the USSR when he first met with Ronald Reagan in 1985.
Although there seems to be no barrier to US military presence in the China Sea—two US B-IB bombers recently joined Japanese fighter jets in a drill over the East China Sea, while the USS Nimitz-led Seventh Fleet conducted joint military exercises with Indian and Japanese forces along the Bay of Bengal—the general thrust seems to be expanding ties with China. This comes after Trump’s summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in Florida last April, where they agreed to have high-level conferences on security, economy, law enforcement and cyber security, social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
Why Putin is feared
But Trump’s enemies within and outside his party seem determined to concede no room for expanded ties with Russia, (perhaps) unless and until Putin admits having manipulated the last US election to make Trump president, and Trump is eventually brought down. But Putin has consistently denied any official Russian involvement in the elections, and his fiercest accusers have failed to show proof that he had. The real problem though is that Putin has emerged a few notches above many of today’s world leaders and is consequently feared.
Aside from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has invited Putin to help him defeat the IS, DU30 is only one of the few who seem ready and willing to enter into a security cooperation with him. Not content with the US Special Forces helping the Philippine military to quell the IS-inspired Mautes in Marawi, DU30 has been quoted as saying he would like to ask Russia to help in his fight against the IS-influenced extremists. Like DU30, Trump apparently does not fear working with Putin. This is what could terrify and anger the remnants of the Cold War establishment. Herein lies the greater danger. While only an act of God may be able to separate DU30 prematurely from his office, God himself—God forbid—may not have to intervene to separate the White House “insurgent” from his.