Anyone who would like to know what a tell-it-like-it-is, shoot-from-the-hip president is like can look to the Philippines and its leader, Rodrigo Duterte. A 71-year-old populist, Duterte fought drugs while he was mayor of Davao by allegedly ordering death-squad killings. When he took office as president in June he promised more of the same. Since then, his crackdown has reportedly left more than 3,000 suspected drug dealers and pushers dead.
Duterte’s words and actions and his record in the area of domestic human rights have been criticized by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Duterte has not reacted well: “Instead of helping us, the first to criticize is this State Department, so you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell,” Duterte said last week. Earlier, he called President Obama an S.O.B., using the full, unabbreviated form of the insult.
At a time when China is asserting its influence in the South China Sea region, and challenging smaller nations — including the Philippines, Duterte has thrown caution to the wind by focusing his pique on America and by threatening to break the ties with his country’s ally, military protector and former colonial ruler. “Eventually I might, in my time, I will break up with America,” he said, adding, “I would rather go to Russia and to China.” He has also said he wants the U.S. military out of the restive south and that, after this week, there will be no more joint naval exercises with the United States.
Last month, Duterte received additional international criticism when he compared himself to Hitler and his drug war to the Holocaust. As part of that pitch, he said: “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million, what is it, 3 million drug addicts [in the Philippines] … I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims, I would like [them] to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.”
The criticism for that outburst came quickly. The Philippine ambassador to Germany was called to the Foreign Ministry for a dressing down. And international condemnation followed.
Although Duterte apologized to the Jews for the remark, the episode adds more reason for concern regarding his troubling history of threatening to kill all those who get in his way. That’s a problem for the Philippines, the region and the United States. The world just doesn’t need another despotic killer.