Nicolas Datiche/Getty Images

The Trump-Duterte Drug War Tango

Since Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration last year, police and affiliated death squads have summarily executed more than 8,000 suspected drug users. When US President Donald Trump visits Manila this weekend, he will almost certainly remain silent, sending a global signal that state violence in the service of policy is acceptable.

NEW YORK – When US President Donald Trump visits the Philippines this weekend, on the last stop of his marathon trip to Asia, he will pay respects to President Rodrigo Duterte. Since Duterte’s inauguration last year, police and affiliated death squads have summarily executed more than 8,000 suspected drug users. Duterte himself has bragged of his role in launching and overseeing these extrajudicial killings.

Trump has already boasted of his close ties to Duterte, and the two men are expected to develop a fast affinity when they meet. What they are not expected to do is talk seriously about human rights. On Wednesday, Duterte told reporters what he would say if Trump broached the topic: “Lay off.”

The major question, then, is how explicitly Trump will endorse Duterte’s policy and practice of mass murder. Regardless of whether Trump directly praises Duterte’s program, or says nothing about it at all, his mere presence will be interpreted as a signal to law enforcement there, in the United States, and elsewhere that corruption and criminal violence in the service of a policy goal is acceptable.

Duterte and Trump have much in common. Both take pride in denigrating political opponents and international figures, such as former President Barack Obama and Pope Francis. Both enjoy using crude language in public statements. Both boast of their prowess as womanizers. both express warm feelings for Russian President Vladimir Putin. And both repeatedly claim widespread popular support, contrary to data (although Duterte does seem to have the edge in actual popular backing).

Of course, Trump has not embarked on a campaign of murder in the US. He has never even hinted at having any intention of doing so, and he could not do it even if he wanted to, given checks and balances on the power of any US government official. Nonetheless, that has not stopped Trump from expressing disdain for his own Justice Department, or from seeking to use the judicial process as a means of retaliating against political opponents. Duterte’s apparent contempt for legal formalities seems to elicit Trump’s admiration. But if Trump expresses support for Duterte’s campaign of mass murder – either directly or by omission – he will also be condoning police corruption.

One reason officials in the Philippines have cooperated so readily in carrying out Duterte’s policy is that doing so includes financial incentives that go far beyond the payments police have reportedly received for executing the president’s “war on drugs.” Sheila Coronel, a distinguished investigative journalist and the academic dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has found that the list of illicit rewards includes profits from extortion, property commandeered from victims, ransom for kidnapped suspects, and even commissions from funeral parlors.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission

subscribe now

These and other motives are fueling the Philippines’ cycle of corruption, and undermining any attempt to reestablish effective policing. Citizen awareness of police corruption is an important part of restoring credibility, which is essential for effective law enforcement. But as Coronel notes, “Filipinos have consistently judged the police the most corrupt of all government agencies.” By promoting policies that contribute to police misconduct, Duterte is actually encouraging the very criminality that his campaign to wipe out illegal drug use was ostensibly meant to curb.

The mounting death toll from the US opioid epidemic suggests that America’s drug problem is no less serious – and possibly more so – than that of the Philippines. Though the Trump administration has yet to propose an adequate response to its crisis – declaring a national emergency and failing to put any new spending behind the order is clearly insufficient – at least it recognizes that using the police to kill dealers and users is not a solution.

If Trump were to think through how Duterte is perpetuating a drug crisis he seeks to end, perhaps he would refrain from expressing enthusiasm for the approach. Maybe he would even go further, ignoring Duterte’s directive to “lay off.” But, given Trump’s affection for strongman leaders, Duterte will most likely receive a free pass on murdering his own citizens.

http://prosyn.org/DGOGQAo;
  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable


    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.