By Mitchell Blatt*
Paul Mirengoff at the conservative blog Powerline has an article up blaming President Obama for Filipinian president Rodrigo Duterte aligning his country with China.
There’s a tendency among conservatives and Republicans to blame things on Obama, as he is a Democrat, and conservative critics of Obama have also been making a case that Obama hasn’t been strong enough backing up his words on some issues. There is a case to be made. But even the most hardcore Republican Obama critic would have a hard time making the case here.
Duterte, like candidate Trump, is a very unconventional politician and a tyrant. Since taking office he has waged an extrajudicial war on alleged drug users, killing over 2,000 with no due process, including many who aren’t drug users. He has praised Hitler, saying that if Hitler killed 3 million Jews, he would kill 3 million drug addicts. He called Obama in unflattering terms.
Now he has unilaterally decided to tell America to go to hell because he wants to align himself with the totalitarian forces of the world, even as China is asserting claim to islands claimed by the Philippines, even as the Philippines just won a case against China in the UN Law of the Sea court. Duterte said:
America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.
If Trump wins maybe the U.S. could join the gang and get back in good graces with the Philippines. Trump has, after all, signaled his affinity for the leadership style of Putin and said that the U.S. should reconsider defending its NATO allies and South Korea and Japan. In both countries the right-wing candidates appear to think valuing human rights and democratic process might stifle the fast-paced changes they feel need to be made.
But it doesn’t do the Philippines much good to align themselves with China. The United States has long been a strong ally of the country it once colonized, and they have good military relations.
China is the Philippines’ #1 trade partner, accounting for US$19 billion in exports and $14 billion in imports each year, but Russia is nowhere near the top of the list. The U.S. and its allies, South Korea and Japan account for more trade in total.
Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest makes the argument that Russia’s support for the Syrian government, coupled with Obama’s refusal to enforce his ill-conceived “red line” against the government’s apparent use of chemical weapons, is causing tyrants to cozy up with the Russian and Chinese governments.
This points to a broader problem: Obama’s tortuous efforts to balance a commitment to human rights and the niceties of American liberal ideology with a strong policy in defense of basic American security interests have made the world less safe for both human rights and for American security. As the revisionist powers (Russia, China, and Iran) gain ground, foreign leaders feel less and less need to pay attention to American sermons about human rights and the rule of law. Death squads and extra-judicial executions on a large scale: the Americans will lecture you but China will still be your friend. Barrel bombing hospitals in Aleppo? The Russians won’t just back you; they will help you to do it.
The Philippines was no shining beacon of human rights and democracy, but Duterte appears to have made it worse. By contrast, Syria was already hostile to the U.S. However it didn’t serve U.S. interests to get too involved in a civil war in Syria between murky factions that could result in the country being run by Islamists. Duterte’s changes to the U.S.-Philippines relationship are entirely his doing and don’t appear to benefit his country’s foreign policy interests in any recognizable way.
Duterte already threatened to pull out of the UN in anticipation of Obama criticizing him for his extrajudicial killing policy before Obama said anything to him about it. America has allied with tyrannical governments before out of necessity, and there was no suggestion that Obama would have ended the alliance.
If, as Mead seems to suggest in his argument, Duterte aligned with anti-American interests because he wants to have the freedom to continue aggressively violating the rights of his people, then that is entirely because he has his own irrational political interests stemming from a fascistic mindset.
Remember this possibility as well, as with Trump: It’s always possible that the man is acting in no coherent fashion because he’s crazy and those attempting to ascribe theories to him are giving him too much credit.