JUST as the Queen of England was recently urged by some of her loyal subjects to recall an invitation to US President Donald Trump to visit Buckingham Palace, some Americans, including ranking members of the Senate and House foreign relations/affairs committees and the leading US newspapers, are asking Trump to rescind an invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House. It appears Trump has failed to consider the possible public reaction to the invitation before announcing it, and has now to reap its consequences.
The assumption is that the invitation, having been issued and made public by the host himself, has simultaneously been accepted by the invited guest, even though no timetable has been set. However, sources close to Malacañang claim that DU30 is still studying the matter, and might eventually decide not to accept it. This is not unthinkable. DU30 has already said, he might be “too busy.” This means missing a meal prepared by the Filipino female chef, if she is still there.
Reasons to avoid the White House
According to these sources, China, a recent and increasingly becoming a more powerful ally, would be looking closely at a DU30-Trump one-on-one meeting, given all the things DU30 had been saying about the US from the time he came into power, and especially since October when he visited Beijing. There he announced his economic and military “separation” from the US and aligning with China and Russia “against the world.” DU30 will not want to make Beijing nervous by appearing to allow himself being “sweet-talked” by Trump. Some rich and powerful governments tend to be very jealous allies.
Moreover, DU30 will not want to put himself at the mercy of the American media, which had obviously not forgotten that he had called former President Barack Obama “son of a whore,” and had reacted with such hostility to Trump’s invitation to him to visit the White House. While Trump would certainly roll out the ceremonial red carpet for his honored guest, the US media and some members of Congress could roll out a much larger mat of shattered glass and metal spikes, figuratively speaking. Why should DU30 want to risk anything like that?
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, a ranking member of the House foreign affairs committee, was the first member of the US Congress to ask Trump to disinvite DU30 in light of his “flagrant disregard for human life and due process.” He said Trump could not turn a blind eye to the thousands of Filipinos being slaughtered in DU30’s murderous drug war. He pooh-poohed the explanation offered by Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus that Trump could use DU30 as a handy resource in handling the North Korean nuclear menace.
The North Korean angle
Trump has announced his desire to meet personally with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, something no US President has done or attempted to do before. This could have some favorable results, according to some seasoned American diplomats, who favor the reported move. But Kim is such a rogue. Aside from having his finger on the nuclear trigger, and threatening the world with nuclear war, Kim is depicted in the Western press as a brute, who ousted his powerful uncle Jang Song-taek from power in 2013 and had him executed. He also reportedly ordered the recent assassination of a half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, where two assailants doused him with liquid containing the nerve agent VX.
Apparently, if the Priebus scenario is to be believed, Trump not only wants to meet with Kim but also to conscript DU30 as a possible broker in reaching out to the North Korean leader. Kim and DU30 have never met, but some people seem to think they have a few things in common. This assumes that Kim has not noticed that TIME magazine had put DU30, rather than himself, on top of its “most influential” 100 individuals in the world. Which means he and DU30 are competitors rather than potential allies. But obviously, the US congressman has fewer illusions. He might also have noticed that instead of helping feuding groups and individuals, like the two political womanizers in Congress from Davao, compose their differences, DU30 would rather watch them fight; he has managed to make enemies where he had none. Hardly a distinguishing quality for a peace broker.
More than using DU30’s good offices for a possible dialogue with Kim, there seems to be a greater need to talk to DU30 for an unimpeded implementation of the US security treaties with the Philippines in case current efforts to contain Kim’s inclination to war fail. In case war breaks out on the Korean peninsula, the US will need adequate berthing and refueling facilities for the USS Carl Vinson strike group and other naval and air assets. There can be no better place for these than the Philippines.
On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping called DU30 on the phone, presumably on the North Korean situation. No details of the conversation were announced. Davao-based sources however, speculate that whatever they talked about, the two also discussed Trump’s invitation, which seems to have put Trump on the meat grinder, as it were, as far as American public opinion is concerned.
More anger from Congress
Democratic Senators Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Chris Coons of Delaware, both members of the Senate foreign relations committee, have minced no words. “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash,” said Murphy’s well-quoted tweet. “By welcoming DU30 to meet with him at the White House, Trump risks giving DU30’s action an American stamp of approval,” said Coons.
No less passionate was The New York Times in its latest editorial. It called DU30 a “despot”, who should not be welcome at the White House. “American Presidents must work with foreign leaders of all kinds to advance the national interest. But Mr. Trump erodes America’s reputation when he uncritically embraces those who show the least regard for human rights, rule of law and democracy,” the Times said.
In a previous editorial, the Times described DU30 as a man “who should be stopped,” and suggested that the International Criminal Court at The Hague give due course to a “communication” filed by Mindanao lawyer Jude Josue Sabio accusing DU30 of the “murder” of 9,400 drug and criminal suspects since 1988.
Last December, the Times ran several pages of photographs showing 57 victims of the drug war under the title, “They are slaughtering us like animals.” These photographs just won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for free- lance photographer Daniel Berelhulak,. But to the Times belonged the credit of sharing these pictures with the rest of the world.
The Times appears to have taken much more than the usual adversarial role vis-a-vis a political adversary. This has prompted some of DU30’s editorial defenders to denounce the newspaper as a newspaper with an anti-DU30 agenda, instead of simply pointing out its errors and condemning them if necessary. It does not seem unlikely that the Times may have decided to wage an editorial crusade against DU30’s drug war.
As dogged as the Post
It probably wants to replicate The Washington Post’s phenomenal success in exposing Watergate and driving President Richard Nixon out of the White House in 1974. The only problem here is that, no matter how influential the Times may think it is, it is not dealing with its own government, but rather with a foreign government, which doesn’t seem to care very much about the exalted opinion of mankind, being (in its view) answerable only to itself—not even to the population that voted it into office. Thus, it cannot be influenced much by foreign newspaper editorials.
But some observers believe that the series of pungent Times editorials on the US President “embracing a despot” could compel him to rethink not only his invitation to DU30 but even his planned visit to Manila for the November East Asian and US-Asean summit. For although he likes to spar with the US press and reject whatever they say, he cannot forever dismiss the strongest words that see print in the mainstream press. At the end of the day, he will want to read the press’—and history’s —favorable verdict of his presidency.
Should DU30 finally decide not to come to the White House, as insinuated, that should spare Trump the trouble of having to “disinvite” his “friend.” It would simply postpone their meeting until November. But diplomatic observers believe that if “embracing” DU30 remains a major issue in the American media and the Congress, even that November meeting could yet be called off. Trump is not likely to keep DU30 in his embrace at the price of so much unnecessary antagonism from the US press and Congress. Eventually, if DU30 continues with the barbarous drug killings, and the ICC process moves forward, Trump may eventually have to say something about them, at the risk of being called “son of a whore” by his Filipino friend.
The search for a solid and stable ground
Just as DU30 cannot afford to have calm and cordial relations with Beijing so long as he says nothing about last July’s arbitral ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in favor of the Philippines against China, does nothing on the island of Pagasa, and leaves to China all the island-building in the West Philippine/South China Sea, Trump cannot afford to have US relations with its oldest Asian ally in good standing only for so long as he doesn’t say anything about the state-ordered extra-judicial drug killings.
So far, both have managed to behave according to script. But these artificial situations cannot last forever. One day DU30 will have to say something about his country’s rights to territories in the West Philippine/South China Sea, and one day Trump will have to say something about the drug killings attributed, fairly or unfairly, to DU30. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the Armed Forces chief of staff and other senior military commanders became major heroes in the eyes of the AFP officers corps and men when they flew that Philippine Air Force plane onto Pagasa island in the Spratlys after the President decided not to join them. Following China’s complaint, which most Filipinos found unreasonable and irritating, there is now a rising clamor for DU30 to take a stronger and clearer stand on the scope of the nation’s territory and territorial claims.
As for Trump, many observers believe that just one small sign that the ICC Chief Prosecutor is seriously looking into the possible merits of the “communication” against DU30 should prompt the US President to take a fresh look into, and adopt a new perspective on the human rights situation in the Philippines. Philippine-US relations should rest on more solid and stable ground than on the temperament and personal inclinations and prejudices of the President. For most Filipinos, trying to create this solid and stable ground is more important than trying to ward off real or imagined threats of a new Korean war.