Calling Obama ‘Son Of A Whore’ Might Be The Least Offensive Thing The Filipino President Has Done

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the National Convention Center for scheduled bilateral meetings with ASEAN leaders. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BULLIT MARQUEZ
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the National Convention Center for scheduled bilateral meetings with ASEAN leaders. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BULLIT MARQUEZ

The White House is downplaying any perceived rift between the United States and the Philippines, after a meeting between the two heads of state was cancelled because Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte called Barack Obama a “son of a whore.” This is disconcerting — not because of Duterte’s insult, but because of his policies, which have greatly alarmed human rights advocates.

Obama canceled a scheduled meeting on Tuesday with Duterte. The meeting was set to take place in Laos, where both leaders were attending the ASEAN summit, but was abruptly canceled following an outburst from Duterte. The Filipino president, who is not known for mincing words, called Obama a “son of a whore” prior to their planned conversation.

“You must be respectful,” Duterte said, after a reporter asked him how he might respond to criticism from Obama about his approach to combating crime. “Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.”

Obama’s meeting with Duterte was canceled over a bold insult, but Manila’s fiery rhetoric is nothing compared to the bodies piling up in its streets, something that the White House does not seem to be taking as seriously as it should.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called U.S.-Philippines relations “strong” and “longstanding” — comments that skirted around Duterte’s human rights abuses.

In the short duration of time since his election, Manila’s leader has cracked down on the country’s drug war so harshly that a range of foreign leaders and organizations have expressed concern. Duterte took office only two months ago, but in that time more than 2,400 people have been killed for their associations, presumed or otherwise, to the Philippines’ drug trade.

While some of these deaths have been claimed by the Philippine National Police (PNP), the majority have been linked to vigilantes, many of them empowered by Duterte’s calls for aggressive action against anyone involved in the drug trade. According to Time, the most recent numbers released by the PNP indicate that while 1,011 of the alleged drug-related deaths under Duterte have been claimed by government forces, approximately 1,391 are presumably the work of vigilantes. This lack of oversight, and endorsement of violent lawlessness, bodes ill for the duration of Duterte’s tenure.

Obama’s meeting with Duterte was canceled over a bold insult, but Manila’s fiery rhetoric is nothing compared to the bodies piling up in its streets, something that the White House does not seem to be taking as seriously as it should. While the canceled meeting was clearly intended to send a message, the United States has also been eager to brush aside any perceived tension. This attitude has been reflected on the campaign trail, where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also seemed more focused on the insult than on Duterte’s track record and emphasized the positive relationship the United States and the Philippines typically enjoy.

Obama himself seemed equally unconcerned. “I have seen some of those colorful statements in the past, and so, clearly, he’s a colorful guy,” the president said when asked about Duterte’s remarks.

Washington has many reasons for wanting to maintain a healthy relationship with Manila. Historically, the Philippines has had a somewhat rocky relationship with the United States, which occupied the Southeast Asian nation from 1898 to 1946. While this colonial legacy (and the bloody war that severed it) has done little to endear Americans to the Philippines, a close military relationship has developed over the years and the two nations have been close allies for years, something that has been reflected in recent agreements. A new security deal signed in March will allow for an even more heightened U.S. military presence throughout the Philippines, something that comes at a critical moment. Increasing Chinese movements in the South China Sea have created tension in the region, and while the White House has claimed impartiality over the issue it also stands to gain little from a rising China. This has prompted stronger bonds with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, like the Philippines, many of whom are equally concerned about China’s growing influence.

But an alliance with the Philippines means overlooking its leader’s abuses, something Washington may come to regret as more people fall victim to Duterte’s agenda. It also means potentially opening the door for similar behavior elsewhere. At a press conference yesterday, Indonesia’s anti-narcotics chief praised Duterte’s methodology and promised a similar approach in his country. Those comments have since been walked back — for now.