VIENTIANE, Laos â€” US President Barack Obama called off a planned meeting Tuesday with 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.
In Hangzhou this week, Obama’s first stop in Asia, he heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for hosting the Group of 20 economic summit in his country, an authoritarian state long accused of human rights violations. His next stop was another one-party communist country with a dismal rights record: Laos, where mysterious disappearances have fueled concerns about a government crackdown.
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 following the summer’s failed coup in Turkey. Instead, he worked to reassure the NATO ally the US would help bring to justice whoever was responsible for plotting the coup.
Obama also 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 global issues, the US and Russia are nonetheless 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 for the Philippines considering recent tensions over Beijing’s aspirations in the South China Sea.
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 â€” 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, which Duterte has described as a harsh war. He has said the battle doesn’t amount to genocide but has vowed to go to jail if needed to defend police and military members carrying out his orders.
Duterte expresses regretÂ over strong comments
Hours after US President Barack Obama cancelled their scheduled meeting, President Duterte expressed regret yesterday that his tirade against the leader of the most powerful nation came across as a personal attack.
The meeting was supposed to take place on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit here.
â€œWhile the immediate cause was my strong comments to certain press questions that elicited concern and distress, we also regret it came across as a personal attack on the US president,â€ Duterte said in a statement read by Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. He said the meeting was â€œmutually agreed uponâ€ to be moved to a â€œlater date.â€
The 71-year-old former prosecutor and Davao City mayor on Monday threatened to curse Obama to his face if the latter lectured him over concerns about a brutal war on illegal drugs that has claimed more than 2,400 lives in the Philippines.
â€œYou must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,â€ Duterte told reporters on Monday when asked about his message for Obama.
â€œWe will be wallowing in the mud like pigs if you do that to me,â€ he addedd.
But the President softened his tone after Washingtonâ€™s announcement of the cancelation of the bilateral meeting.
â€œHe regrets that his remarks to the press have caused much controversy,â€ a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) statement said.
â€œBoth delegations, however, have agreed that in the light of the issues that still need to be worked on, the bilateral meeting between the two nations will be postponed to a later date,â€ the statement said.
â€œThe President looks forward to ironing out differences arising out of national priorities and perceptions, and working in mutually responsible ways for both countries,â€ it added.
DFA spokesman Charles Jose said that while the schedules of the two leaders are tight, there might still be a chance for them to meet.
â€œWeâ€™re working for that to happen,â€ Jose said in a text message from Laos.
In the statement, Duterte stressed the war on drugs and criminality should be won to ensure the peopleâ€™s rights and liberties are protected and preserved.
â€œIt is imperative that the fight against illegal drugs, terrorism, crimes and poverty must be won in order to preserve the principle and values upon which our democratic way of life is anchored,â€ he said.
â€œOur primary intention is to chart an independent foreign policy while promoting closer ties with all nations, especially the US with which we have a longstanding partnership,â€ Duterteâ€™s statement said.
The DFA said Duterte had â€œa deep regard and affinity for President Obama and for the enduring partnership between our nations.â€ (By Josh Lederman, Kathleen Hennessy, Pia Lee Brago)