Property magnate and political outsider Donald Trump takes his oath of office in Washington, D.C. today as the 45th President of the United States, amidst so much anxiety about the direction his government will take. While many wonder whether he is wholly suited for the job, the greater wonder is whether America and the rest of the world are ready for Trump.
He seems determined to change so many things in the world. On Twitter and in international press interviews, he has flayed Beijing’s One-China policy, derided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete,” called German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugees policy a “catastropic mistake,” and looked to more members leaving the European Union after Brexit.
For Filipinos, whose interests tend to be limited to strictly local issues, the main question is how he will respond to President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to separate his government economically and politically from the United States and align it with China and Russia “against the world.” DU30 made this announcement while visiting Beijing last October. And some “pundits” quickly interpreted it to mean the end of the US pivot to Asia, which commits some 60 percent of the US naval assets to the Asia Pacific. But last December, DU30 telephoned Trump to congratulate him on his phenomenal election, and their seven-minute conversation appeared to have changed DU30’s attitude toward Washington. DU30 was later quoted as saying he was open to working closely with Trump.
Message from Trump
Last week, DU30 hosted a two-day visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his home city of Davao. It was evidently a highly successful visit, with Abe enjoying a native Filipino breakfast with the President in his home. Abe offered $8.7 billion (1 trillion yen) in investments and material assistance to the government over the next five years. This includes speedboats and counter-terrorism equipment for the Philippine Coast Guard worth $5 million (600 million yen). Abe, who was traveling to Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam from Manila, was the first head of state to visit the Philippines since DU30 became president. DU30 himself has traveled to most of the ASEAN capitals, Peru, China and Japan.
But the most significant achievement of Abe’s visit appears to be getting DU30 and Washington, DC to agree to a cessation of verbal exchanges in connection with DU30’s ongoing war on drugs. Former President Barack Obama’s attempt to look officially into the extrajudicial killings in the drug war had prompted DU30 to call him a “son of a whore” and to threaten economic and military separation from the US. This threatened to plunge Philippine-US relations to their lowest level.
According to highly informed sources, Abe conveyed a message from Trump proposing a “ceasefire” on the verbal war. Trump reportedly assured DU30 through Abe that the State Department would not say anything about the human rights issue against DU30 in exchange for a cessation of DU30’s attacks on the US. DU30 reportedly agreed to it.
We don’t expect any official announcement about this from either side. But we should see in the coming days whether or not this alleged agreement will hold. Although the US President has control of all executive departments, the State Department operates as a career democratic institution in promoting human rights around the world. Neither can the President prevent the leaders of Congress, including Republicans, from speaking their independent minds on any major issue. At the Senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, several nominees contradicted Trump’s signature positions on certain issues such as relations with Russia, the use of torture on terrorists, the nuclear deal with Iran and climate change.
Will Trump’s people back him up?
These include Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary nominee James “Mad Dog” Mattis, CIA Director-designate Mike Pompeo and Attorney General-designate Jeffrey Sessions. Tillerson and Mattis announced tough positions on Russia, despite Trump’s conciliatory position toward President Vladimir Putin and Moscow. Mattis and Sessions said they would oppose the use of torture such as waterboarding during interrogation of detained terrorists, even if ordered by the President.
Torture became notoriously associated with Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo in Cuba where the US kept Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters captured from the Afghanistan war. One famous case involved a 49-day, 20 hour-a-day interrogation, during which various forms of torture were used, including forced nudity in cold rooms, shackling in stress positions, forcing detainee to stay awake with loud music, and making bark like a dog and obey dog commands.
The most famous report on military torture was prepared by US Army Maj. General Antonio Taguba, an American general of Philippine birth, who investigated the abuse of detainees held at Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq. The Taguba Report, an internal US Army report, was leaked, then published in 2004. In 2008, Taguba in a preface to a report by Physicians for Human Rights on prisoner abuse and torture in American military prisons, accused the Bush administration of committing war crimes. I spoke to Taguba at the National Press Club in Washington, DC after his expose, and could see how proud the audience was to have him there.
Extra-judicial killing is certainly worse than torture, although some might prefer instant death to the most brutal types of torture. There can be no guarantee therefore that an official US policy not to say anything on the summary drug killings would quiet down the US Congress, the churches and religious leaders, the media, and civil society itself–if DU30’s drug killings continue, and only the “free-lancers” are eliminated while the real drug lords remain untouched, and even protected, as seems to be happening now. Trump himself may be compelled to speak out in the end, if DU30’s conduct of government continues to be defined solely by his drug war.
If indeed an agreement has been reached between DU30 and Trump not to allow any polemic on the extrajudicial killings to “distract” them from their pursuit of common goals, DU30 must stop the killings NOW. Make good governance real. Continue the war on drugs, if he must, but target the biggest drug lords, not the nameless thousands in slippers. Indeed, if he wants to eliminate the crime lords altogether, he should do what Marcos did (by law) to Lim Seng during martial law, since he has been executing drug suspects anyway without need of a death sentence.
The thing to do next
The next step—-which is really the only thing he is called upon to do-—is to provide honest, competent and effective government, pursuant to the Constitution and the rule of law. He has not provided that. Government is said to be the most complex machine ever invented by man; it needs some basic ideas and skills to run it, but he has not shown the most rudimentary skills in running it. Thus we have what we have right now. The domestic situation is a mess, the external situation is infinitely worse. After DU30 reportedly agreed to Trump’s alleged proposal, Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., the most powerful man in government next to the President, was heard to ask, “What happens to China?”
China is mature enough to realize that, despite all the noise about the Philippines separating from the US because of DU30’s personal resentment against Obama, that could not be a precondition for the new, expanded relations with China. In fact, nothing was heard from Beijing or Moscow after DU30 said he was separating from the US and aligning himself with China and Russia “against the world.” The real problem is how the DU30 government, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. in particular, could handle the situation as it exists today. Most instructive is the way the Foreign Office is handling the Chinese arms buildup on the artificial islands in the Spratlys, as shown by satellite photos recently published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
When asked about such buildup on the islets in the Spratlys at his confirmation hearings, Tillerson said the US would expel the Chinese from the islets and deny them access. To which the Chinese media warned this would mean war. Yasay, on the other hand, sent the Chinese Embassy in Manila a note verbale, but tried to downgrade its meaning by saying it was not meant as a diplomatic protest but merely a request for verification. With this, Yasay succeeded in showing beyond doubt that he is the only foreign secretary in the world who does not even understand what a note verbale means.
It remained for Ambassador Lauro Baja, former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to point out that when a government sends a note to another, it is to register a protest. It is quite naive to send a note just to verify from the other party something the sender does not quite yet know for a fact, and expect an honest and accurate reply from the other side. Given the level of our incompetence to handle our foreign relations, it seems a genuine blessing that Trump has proposed a modus vivendi with DU30. Otherwise, how could we possibly handle the US as an adversary if we cannot even seem to handle it as a friend?
A Cabinet revamp?
All this would seem to suggest that for DU30 to benefit fully from Trump’s proposed modus vivendi without sacrificing the Philippines’ expanded ties with China and Russia, he would need a much stronger and more competent help from his Cabinet, notably from his Secretary of Foreign Affairs. This means a meaningful Cabinet revamp, to reshape this organization from one that is made up of “Secretary Evasco and the others,” into a fully functioning structure, under the genuine leadership of a Foreign Secretary with the sufficient stature and gravitas to deal with the more important problems of the nation and the world.