Won’t meet Duterte after harsh words by Philippine leader
US President Barack Obama called off a planned meeting Tuesday with new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, seeking distance from a US ally’s leader during a diplomatic tour that’s put Obama in close quarters with a cast of contentious world figures.
It’s unusual for one president to tell another what to say or not say, and much rarer to call the other a “son of a bitch.” Duterte managed to do both just before flying to Laos for a regional summit, warning Obama not to challenge him over extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
“Clearly, he’s a colorful guy,” Obama said. “What I’ve instructed my team to do is talk to their Philippine counterparts to find out is this in fact a time where we can have some constructive, productive conversations.”
Early Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the meeting with Duterte was off.
Duterte has been under intense global scrutiny over the more than 2,000 suspected drug dealers and users killed since he took office. Obama had said he planned to raise the issue in his first meeting with Duterte, but the Philippine leader insisted he was only listening to his own country’s people.
“You must be respectful,” Duterte said of Obama. “Do not just throw questions.” Using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch,” he said, “Putang ina I will swear at you in that forum.” He made the comment to reporters in Manilla.
Eager to show he wouldn’t yield, Obama said he would “undoubtedly” still bring up human rights and due process concerns “if and when” the two do meet.
The bizarre rift with the leader of a US treaty ally was the most glaring example of how Obama has frequently found himself bound to foreign countries and leaders whose ties to the US are critical even if their values sharply diverge.
And sitting down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama made no mention in public of the roughly 35,000 people Erdogan’s government detained after the summer’s failed coup in Turkey. Instead, he worked to reassure Turkey that the US would help bring to justice the coup plotters.
Obama spent about 90 minutes Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, another leader whose fate seems intertwined with Obama’s in all the wrong ways. On opposing sides of many issues, the two are trying to broker a deal to address the Syrian civil war and perhaps even partner militarily there.
“President Putin’s less colorful,” Obama said, comparing him with Duterte. “But typically the tone of our meetings is candid, blunt, businesslike.”
Managing Duterte has become a worsening headache for Obama since the Filipino took office on June 30, pledging his foreign policy wouldn’t be constricted by reliance on the US Washington has tried largely to look the other way as Duterte has pursued closer relations with China, a marked shift from his predecessor.
A public break from the Philippines would put Obama in a tough position, given the Southeast Asian nation’s status as a longtime US ally. The Obama administration has sought to compartmentalize by arguing that military and other cooperation won’t be jeopardized even if it detests the current Philippine leader’s tone.
Last month, Duterte said he didn’t mind Secretary of State John Kerry but “had a feud with his gay ambassador — son of a bitch, I’m annoyed with that guy.” He applied the same moniker to an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and killed, and even to Pope Francis, even though the Philippines is a heavily Catholic nation. He later apologized.
With a reputation as a tough-on-crime former mayor, Duterte has alarmed human rights groups with his deadly campaign against drugs.