Asian Editors Circle

Duterte's American fixation

Cabinet secretaries and campaign volunteers alike have told me that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is open to new ideas and serene about ceding full control to his appointees within their scope of work. In my own, limited interaction with him during the presidential campaign, he struck me as someone entirely at ease in his own skin. All of which makes one ask: Why is his foreign policy driven by longstanding resentment, and why does his signature governance initiative depend on an old, unsound idea?

Since his election, and especially since his so-called war on drugs provoked United States President Barack Obama to raise human rights concerns, he has attacked the US for its great-power hypocrisy and Mr Obama for, well, being an American. He denounced the presence of American forces in the Philippines, ordered an end to decades of annual military exercises between the Philippine military and the American armed services, refused Philippine participation in joint naval patrols in disputed parts of the South China Sea and, while on a state visit to China, dramatically declared a "separation" from the US.

I think it is fair to say that the vigorous criticism of American presence and policy preceded any articulation on his part of the Philippine Constitution's directive for the country to develop an "independent foreign policy".

The gut reaction to what his leftist supporters call continued American "domination" of the Philippines came first; in a remarkable disclosure, he even told a forum in China that he felt slighted many years ago when his application for a US visa was rejected. His own humiliation thus magnifies the worst excesses of American colonial rule in the Philippines; it helps explain why, in his first appearance on the world stage, in Laos, he was driven to lecture the summit of leaders on atrocities that Americans committed against "my ancestor". (He did not however include American complicity in the crimes of the Marcos dictatorship, because Marcos' descendants support him.)

The war on drugs that Mr Duterte launched in the Philippines less than four months ago - his signature initiative - has already claimed thousands of lives, including the obviously innocent (children caught in the crossfire, overseas Filipinos back home for a quick visit). And yet, the experience of other countries, including Thailand, has already discredited this take-no-prisoners approach. It simply does not work.

Suspects rounded up during an anti-drug operation at an informal settlers' community in Manila on Oct 7. Concerns have been raised that the new government's war on illegal drugs embraces a take-no-prisoners approach that has cost the lives of thousands, including innocents. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But here's the supreme irony. President Duterte's war on drugs is an American invention. It is an American travesty of justice, which he seems intent on imposing on his own country. Not least, it is an American failure, with which he is unaccountably fixated.

It was former US president Richard Nixon who, in 1971, designated drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1" and officially declared a "war on drugs". War is the right word, because what Mr Nixon started eventually mobilised government agencies, military assets and police resources in many countries in a massive bid to stop the illegal drug trade. It has failed, it is failing, because the undertaking, understood precisely as a war, sees users as enemies, rather than victims, who both need help and are a potent source of the help needed.

The excellent Vox special report on the war on drugs notes: "Over the past four decades, the US has committed more than US$1 trillion to the war on drugs. But the crackdown has in some ways failed to produce the desired results: Drug use remains a very serious problem in the US, even though the drug war has made these substances less accessible. The drug war also led to several - some unintended - negative consequences, including a big strain on America's criminal justice system and the proliferation of drug-related violence around the world."

Here's the supreme irony. President Duterte's war on drugs is an American invention. It is an American travesty of justice, which he seems intent on imposing on his own country. Not least, it is an American failure, with which he is unaccountably fixated.

Why is President Duterte fixated on this American idea? For the same reason, I believe, that he thinks China is "good" to the Philippines; Marcos was the Philippines' best president; and Beijing and Moscow continue to be politically aligned and would welcome newly non-aligned countries like his. His formative ideas were formed in the 1960s and 1970s and now, at long last, he is in a position to make them real.

  • The writer is editor-in-chief of and represents the Philippine Daily Inquirer in the Asia News Network. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte's American fixation'. Print Edition | Subscribe