There is no way to paint the President's insulting remarks in flattering colors. It was a gaffe, plain and period. And the Philippines lost a golden opportunity.
Now you may think we lost the opportunity for our president to make a good, which is to say a namby-pamby impression at his diplomatic debut.
You would be wrong to think that, if a good diplomatic debut is toeing the usual line of ASEAN, which cannot decide if it collectively wants to be the indentured servant class of China—which pays well and punishes severely—or of the United States, which does not pay much and pays no serious heed to this neck of the global woods.
First the gaffe and who is responsible.
The gaffe was insulting to the U.S. President. There is no way around that. It was totally unprovoked by him.
Obama, believe it or not did not wipe out the American Indians. His people had a hard enough time running away from the Ku Klux Klan.
And the insult was over human rights, which was the very last thing Duterte wanted to be brought up at the Summit. And yet it was he who brought it up. And he wasn’t even there yet. He was still in Manila. That guaranteed that the American would win an argument the American was not even making.
Obama’s reaction was cold, elegant, and contemptuous. In his official matter of fact tone, he said, “I have asked staff if a meeting with the Philippine president would still be productive.” Then, without missing a beat, he turned to other topics. That was all we merited: the opinion of staff.
Who is to blame? Duterte’s staff, his Communications Team.
Why did he have to deliver a going-away speech? He’s coming back anyway. Then he will have something to talk about.
Nobody does the departure thing anymore.
And to whom was he saying goodbye?
My God, we live with this guy. Why should he have to tell us where he is going and why? We know already. It is in the news.
And so he delivered an unnecessary speech where he might have accidentally telegraphed serious diplomatic punches, if he had any in mind.
After the speech his in-com-pe-team asked media if there were any questions. And yet his in-com-pe-team had earlier suggested “better no questions.” One of the questions inevitably was, “What will you do if you get a tongue-lashing over human rights from Obama?”
Naturally Duterte flew off the handle. Nobody takes a tongue-lashing from anyone except maybe his wife, if she caught him.
And at that it was a “hypodermical,” as some in media would say.
Duterte lost the chance precisely to avoid the very subject he would scorn at the summit. Yet there he was, still on the ground, running smack into the very subject he wanted to avoid, from the worst possible angle and in the worst possible light.
If Obama had asked him about human rights it would not have been aggressively but with the elegant not to say vapid phrasing of diplomacy. That would have had even Mobotu Sese Seko agreeing wholeheartedly to whatever Obama was saying. Even dictators agree with human rights. It is just their definition of human that is so restrictive. Human is everyone who agrees with them; not-human everyone who does not.
With his outburst, Duterte lost the stage, even before stepping on it, for far more important and pressing issues; such as the role of the Philippines as the only country with recognized rights instead of mere claims in the South China Sea. He could have scorned a commitment to the rest of ASEAN, which is hostage to Chinese power because of common frontiers. Meanwhile, he could been defiant of China. He could have walked out of the Summit like Nehru out of a non-aligned conference— stand alone act on a stage of pygmies: the only country able to deal with China on the basis of legal equality.
Instead the ASEAN Summit became for the Philippines about the last thing any ASEAN member will talk about: their sorrier records of extrajudicial killings and outright state-sponsored terrorism. We were the only real democracy in that Summit.
What we lost there was the chance to make history with a diplomatic debut that formally, elegantly, and substantively made a virtue out of our geography: too far from the United States but still a safe distance away from China.
Instead what we achieved was exactly what we feared—an ASEAN Summit that defined us extra-judicially; and indeed extra-territorially—because he was still here.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.