POSTSCRIPT / September 8, 2016 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Finishing school for presidents?

MAYBE there should be a finishing school for would-be presidents of the Philippines.

This was one suggestion we made on Twitter after that spectacle of President Rodrigo Duterte, on the eve of his debut on the global stage, publicly cursing US President Barack Obama who has not said one hurtful word against him.

During the last election campaign, we also reminded voters that we were looking for a president, not a vigilante boss. But an avalanche of more than 16.6 million voters responded by giving the then Davao City mayor a resounding mandate.

While being initiated as the nation’s solo voice in foreign relations – with due respect — President Duterte may want to stop making off-the-cuff remarks spiced with expletives. Instead, he could read verbatim carefully crafted statements whenever he has to talk on foreign affairs.

Had this practice been followed, he could have avoided calling President Obama an SOB, merely on the basis of reports that the latter was planning to “express concern” over the summary killing of just too many suspects in Duterte’s narco campaign.

Duterte has expressed “regrets” for his uncouth remarks (“strong comments” according to him) about Obama, whom he insulted even before they could meet. But the damage has been done.

The US President cancelled the meeting that, ironically, was requested by Manila. He explained: “The Filipino people are some of our closest friends and allies and the Philippines is a treaty ally of ours. But I always want to make sure that if I’m having a meeting that it’s actually productive and we’re getting something done.”

The American leader said in effect that he did not want to waste time talking with somebody he kindly described as a “colorful guy.”

Many Filipinos were saying “sayang!” (what a waste!). Why was it beyond Duterte to assume that the US President has enough breeding to articulate properly whatever he had to tell him?

He thus failed to hear Obama reaffirm US commitment to stand by its treaty allies and to remind China about abiding by international law, including the July 12 ruling of an arbitral court at The Hague upholding Philippine submissions under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Duterte’s coterie failed to remind him of the admonition of our elders that in diplomacy, as it is in everyday human relations, we can disagree without being disagreeable.

• Duterte dreaded an Obama encounter?

MANY people are asking: Is it possible the neophyte summiteer was actually looking for a way to avoid an encounter with the most powerful man in the world, because he was not sure how to handle it?

A similar question was asked recently when he cursed United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and two UN rapporteurs before rejecting (!) the UN chief’s request for them to talk about human rights and summary executions.

When 2,400 suspects are gunned down in just over two months – or an average of more than 33 cadavers a day — the regime must be ready to answer questions, even if the victims were executed in the name of a cleansing war against narco dealers and users.

But Duterte’s inner circle insists that he was right. For one, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said in a presscon: “Why did he do that? Maybe, he remembered that President Obama is already a lame-duck president. In a few months, he will leave his office.”

“I think he is more concerned about the welfare of Filipino workers than establishing a strong relation with an outgoing president,” he said when asked if Duterte’s statement would affect Filipino workers in the US or American investments in the Philippines.

Bello’s foggy view of American politics is amazing. The US government is not likely to take it against Filipinos that they have a foul-mouthed president. As Obama has indicated, it has more important things to do than bother with getting even.

Calling Obama a lame duck is a facile dismissal of political reality. In the November presidential elections, either Democratic Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will win.

If Clinton wins, she can be expected to continue Obama’s policy vis-à-vis the Philippines, because she was part of laying it down as Secretary of State. If Trump wins, which Bello as labor secretary should not wish to happen, Filipino residents and workers in the US are not assured of any better treatment than they enjoy under Obama.

Bello’s bellowing about an imagined lame duck was nothing but sour-grapes. If he needed a smack to wipe away his Cheshire Cat grin, there was Hillary herself yesterday saying that Obama “made exactly the right choice” in canceling his meeting with Duterte.

She said: “When the President of the Philippines insulted our President, it was appropriate, in a very low-key way, to say ‘Sorry, no meeting.’”

• Filipinos to benefit from Duterte antic?

WHOSE loss/gain is it? It is not the complete picture, but on trade and investments alone, it could be worrisome.

John W. Schoen reported on CNBC yesterday, citing figures from the US Trade Representative, that the US is one of the biggest investors in the Philippines with some $731 million in direct investments last year, much of it in manufacturing.

The US is one of the biggest buyers of Philippine exports, including some $5 billion worth of machinery and more than $1.1 billion in apparel, he reported, and has a big presence in the services business, with sales of services by majority US-owned affiliates totaling $3.6 billion in 2011.

But he noted that while the US is the world’s second-largest customer for Philippine exports, the Philippines ranked 33rd among buyers of US exports.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 8, 2016)

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