Trump’s hand of friendship to Philippine strongman
President Trump stunned human rights advocates and some members of his administration this week by inviting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—who is accused of orchestrating the extrajudicial killings of more than 7,000 drug suspects—to the White House. Trump made the offer in “a very friendly” phone conversation, the White House said, during which he and Duterte discussed the North Korean nuclear threat, among other issues. “The Philippines is very important to me strategically and militarily,” Trump told an interviewer, adding that Duterte had been “very, very tough on that drug problem.” Two senior administration officials said the State Department and the National Security Council were caught off guard by Trump’s invite. Duterte, who called former President Obama a “son of a whore” and has claimed to have personally killed criminals while mayor of his hometown of Davao, said he may be too “tied up” to visit the U.S.
Trump also told interviewers that he “would be honored” to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, calling him “a pretty smart cookie” who has clung to power despite the efforts of “a lot of people.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Trump’s warm words for Kim and Duterte, as well his past praise for other strongmen, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were “very disturbing.”
What the columnists said
U.S. presidents from both parties have always maintained warm relations with brutal rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, said Yochi Dreazen in Vox.com. The difference with Trump is that he seems to admire dictators and would-be dictators more than he does “democratically elected leaders with liberal values.” His meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was frosty, his phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull downright hostile. This is “good news for the world’s autocrats; it’s terrible news for those who care about human rights.”
Duterte “might well be mentally ill,” said Tom Rogan in NationalReview.com, “but America needs him on its side.” Beijing is building a series of artificial islands in the East and South China Seas, with the aim of controlling the vast trade flows through those waters and pushing out U.S. military forces. Duterte is now deciding whether to join with the U.S. and stand up to China’s territory grab, by defending the Philippines’ claim to part of the crucial Spratly Islands, or accept Chinese control in return for a favorable trade deal. Do Duterte’s domestic atrocities “override all other American concerns?” I don’t believe so, and “Trump is right to engage him.”
If Duterte “crosses the threshold of the White House,” said Noah Rothman in CommentaryMagazine.com, “it will forever taint Trump’s presidency.” The images that have emerged from his drug war are horrifying. Victims of death squads lie bloody in the streets, tossed on garbage piles, or in morgues, “stacked on top of one another like cordwood.” Of course, the U.S. must occasionally suffer unsavory allies for the sake of larger objectives. “But expressing admiration for and rehabilitating butchers like Duterte is indefensible.”