WASHINGTON – As the body count mounts in the Philippines’ deadly war on drugs, and its combative President’s rhetoric plumbs new depths, the mood in Washington toward a key Asian ally is hardening, with Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinting at US impatience.
He said he found it “deeply troubling” that President Duterte did not mind being compared to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler by some critics of his bloody war on drugs. On Friday, Duterte compared the killings of drug addicts to the Holocaust.
Influential US lawmakers are warning that the extrajudicial killings in the drug war could affect American aid.
And while the Obama administration maintains that its 65-year-old alliance with the Philippines remains “ironclad,” a senior US diplomat is cautioning Duterte against more anti-US posturing.
“I think it would be a serious mistake in a democratic country like the Philippines to underestimate the power of the public’s affinity for the US. That’s people power,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel told AP.
Russel did not draw a direct comparison, but past Philippine presidents have been toppled by popular protests dubbed “people power,” including former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in 1986.
Duterte has bristled at US criticism of the drug war and repeatedly spoken about dialing back security cooperation – although he says he will maintain the alliance.
Last week he said that joint military exercises of Filipino and American troops scheduled for next week in the Philippines will be the last such drills.
His foreign secretary, however, quickly said the decision was not final. Such a step would impede Washington’s plans to expand the footprint of US forces in Southeast Asia to counter China.
The previous Philippine government signed an agreement to give the US forces access to five Philippine military bases. That reflected Manila’s anxiety over the territorial ambitions of China with which it has competing claims in the disputed South China Sea.
“If he followed through on this pledge it would be devastating to alliance management,” said Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic Studies. “How does one sustain a military alliance if your militaries don’t exercise together?”
The Obama administration has consistently played down the significance of such pronouncements from Duterte, which have typically been walked back by other Philippine officials.
On Friday, the Philippine leader said that Adolf Hitler had killed three million Jews and that he himself would be “happy to slaughter” three million addicts.
More than 3,000 people have died in the crackdown on drug pushers and users since Duterte took office three months ago.
Germany and the United Nations – through its Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide – have condemned Duterte’s Holocaust remarks.
“It is impossible to make any comparison to the unique atrocities of the Shoah and Holocaust,’” said Germany’s foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer in Berlin.
UN’s Adama Dieng called Duterte’s statements “deeply disrespectful” of the right to life of all human beings. He reminded that the Holocaust was one of the darkest periods in history and that any glorification of the cruel and criminal acts committed by those responsible was unacceptable and offensive. He added such statement was also undermining the efforts of the international community to develop strategies to prevent the recurrence of those crimes.
Earlier, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said Duterte’s remarks were “revolting” and demanded that he retract them and apologize.
“Drug abuse is a serious issue. But what President Duterte said is not only profoundly inhumane, but it demonstrates an appalling disrespect for human life that is truly heartbreaking for the democratically elected leader of a great country,” Lauder said in a statement issued from Jerusalem.
In Hawaii for the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense forum, Carter expressed alarm over Duterte’s Hitler remarks.
“Just speaking personally for myself, I find these comments deeply troubling,” Carter said. A day earlier, he had described the US relationship with the Philippines as “ironclad.”
The State Department has tended to parry questions about Duterte’s outbursts. Spokesman Mark Toner also described the Holocaust reference as “troubling.”
However, Sen. Ben Cardin, top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pulled no punches.
“It is reprehensible and, frankly, disgusting that a democratically elected leader is talking about the mass murder of his own people, with Hitler’s Holocaust as his inspiration, no less,” he said.
Cardin and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, author of a law that prohibits US assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross human rights abuses, took to the Senate floor this week to decry the drug war. They accused Duterte of terrorizing Filipinos through his drug war and endorsing “mass murder.”
Leahy, a senior figure on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said because of the “systemic challenges” in the Philippines, it may be necessary to consider further conditions on aid until the Duterte government “demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law.”
Carter said he had not discussed Duterte’s comments with his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, who was also in Hawaii for the ASEAN meeting.
“Just speaking personally for myself, I find these comments deeply troubling,” Carter said. The Pentagon chief noted that the Philippines is a longtime US treaty ally.
“Like all alliances, it depends on the continuation of a sense of shared interests,” he added. “So far in US-Philippine history we have had that. We look forward to continuing that. But that’s something that we continue to discuss with the Philippine government.”
When Carter visited the Philippines in April, he praised the strength of the partnership. Earlier this week in San Diego, he called US-Philippine defense relations “ironclad.”
That seeming closeness took a sharp downturn when Duterte was elected president in June. In early September, President Barack Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte after the Philippine leader publicly called him a “son of a b***h.” Later, Duterte said he regretted the comment.
The aid Manila gets from Washington is substantial – although it may pale next to the investment that could potentially flow from regional economic powerhouse China, where Duterte is expected to visit this month in a bid to improve ties with Beijing.
The Philippines received about $175 million in US development assistance in 2015 and $50 million in foreign military financing. In 2016, it has gotten $75 million for counterterrorism and maritime security. Since 2011, it has received three decommissioned US Coast Guard cutters to bolster its meager navy.
Russel said Thursday it was no surprise that senior lawmakers were looking to monitor where US assistance funds were going, given the “collateral damage” from Duterte’s drug war. But he added it’s premature to impose restrictions on aid.
He stressed Washington’s desire to work with Duterte. He said the US-Philippine relationship – rooted in a 1951 mutual defense treaty – remains very popular in the Southeast Asian country, notwithstanding Duterte’s repeated references to rights abuses committed a century ago under American colonial rule.
“All politicians have to be responsive to both the mainstream public attitude and the national security and economic interests of their country. All of that leads to continued close ties between our two countries,” Russel said.
Earlier this week, Duterte said joint military exercises of Filipino and American troops scheduled for next week will be the last such drills, although his foreign secretary quickly said the decision was not final. Duterte said the Philippines will maintain its military alliance with the US because they share a 65-year-old mutual defense treaty.
Aides to Carter said he likely would seek clarification in Hawaii from Lorenzana regarding the future of US-Philippine military exercises.
Lorenzana is well known to US officials after serving for more than a decade at the Philippine embassy in Washington prior to taking the defense portfolio after Duterte was elected.
Earlier Friday, Carter said he wants to encourage more regional cooperation in Asia and the Pacific on key issues like maritime security and combatting terrorism.
As part of a broader Obama administration push to “rebalance” its security interests by paying greater attention to Asia and the Pacific after 15 years focused mainly on the Middle East, Carter is pitching the idea of an Asian security “network.”
“The network will help us uphold important principles like resolving disputes peacefully; ensuring countries can make their own choices free from foreign coercion and intimidation; and preserving the freedom of overflight and navigation guaranteed by international law,” he said. – With AP