Alert, Attack, Apologize: The Duterte Strategy

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while addressing guests following a wreath-laying ceremony in observance of National Heroes Day Aug. 29 at the Heroes Cemetery in suburban Taguig city, east of Manila, Philippines. Photo: Bullit Marquez / Associated Press

MANILA — The new Philippine president uses an expletive to warn key ally Barack Obama not to lecture him on human rights and, in another impromptu speech, declares a dramatic policy change in policy such as removing U.S. counter-terrorism forces out of his country’s volatile south. His key officials walk back the remarks and say everything is normal.

And the world wonders which pronouncement is the one that will stick.

Impassioned speeches by Rodrigo Duterte about the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have repeatedly led his government to issue clarifications, though he has been on the job less than three months.

Here’s a sampling of Duterte’s broadsides — and the ensuing clarifications by him or other Philippine officials.


‘Sob’ (But Won’t cut umbilical cord)

THE STATEMENT: “I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. Putang ina, I will swear at you in that forum.”

– Duterte in a Sept. 5 speech, using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch” in answer to a reporter, who asked what he’ll do if President Barack Obama questions his deadly anti-drug fight when they meet in Laos during the annual summit of leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

THE BACKTRACK: Obama responded by canceling a much-awaited meeting with Duterte, who expressed regret over his remarks. The two leaders, however, met informally in a holding room before a gala dinner in Laos, where Duterte said he told Obama the SOB remark wasn’t directed at him. The brash Duterte capped the tempestuous week in U.S.-Philippine ties by discussing, in another Laos meeting with Obama and other world leaders, how U.S. colonial forces killed Muslims in his country’s south in the early 1900s. Back home, Duterte railed at the U.S. again in a speech but said he would not “cut our umbilical cord to countries we are allied with.”

Migraine or principles?

THE STATEMENT: “I purposely did not attend the bilateral talks between ASEAN countries and … the president of the United States. I really skipped that … Now, the reason is not I am anti-West. The reason is not, I do not like the Americans. It’s simply a matter of principle for me.”

– Duterte in a Sept. 12 speech at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila.

THE BACKTRACK: The remarks by Duterte, who has been critical of Obama and U.S. security policies, came four days after his much-noticed absence from the summit of ASEAN leaders and the U.S. president in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

Duterte’s spokesman, Martin Andanar, and at least three Cabinet officials, however, told the media in Vientiane at the time that the Philippine leader couldn’t attend the annual ASEAN-U.S. summit because he had a migraine and wasn’t feeling well.

Driving U.S. forces out of the south

THE STATEMENT: “The special forces, they have to go. They have to go in Mindanao. There are many whites there, they have to go.”

– Duterte in a Sept. 12 speech. He added that he was reorienting the Philippines’ foreign policy and that Americans were under threat of attack by Muslim militants. “I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go. It’ll become more heated. If they see an American, the latter will really be killed. Ransomed off, then killed.”

THE BACKTRACK: Duterte’s key officials initially explained that his remarks were based on fears for the safety of the Americans. But his defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, later played down the safety issue: “The fears of the president that they might be subject to reprisal by the Muslims is a little bit, may not happen because they’re only in the camp and they don’t go out of the camp alone or unless they’re accompanied by our troops or they are also armed. … (T)hese people are also combatants. They are not civilians that are subject to kidnapping by terrorists.

Duterte later suggested he only made the remarks to pacify restive Muslims opposed to the U.S. presence in the south: “I didn’t say (they) have to leave immediately. I said, ‘There will be sometime in the future that I will ask the special forces to go’ … I never said, ‘Get out of the Philippines,’ for after all, we need them there in the (South) China Sea.”

Ratings outburst

THE STATEMENT: “The issue here is not my mouth. And they would say the ratings on business, on the economy, so be it, you get out of here. Then we will start on our own. I can go to China, I can go to Russia. I had a talk with them, they are waiting for me, so what the hell.”

– Duterte, after U.S.-based firm Standard & Poor last week maintained its investment-grade rating and stable outlook for the Philippines but added that a credit rating upgrade in the next two years under Duterte was unlikely. It also warned it may lower that rating if reforms stall.

THE BACKTRACK: Presidential spokesman Martin Andanar took a more optimistic stance. “We welcome S&P’s decision as it gives government greater resolve to make our economy growth robust, sustainable, and inclusive. The fundamentals of the economy are solid and strong. … Peace and order is a must for investors to invest more in the country.”

On breaking off from the United Nations

THE STATEMENT: “Maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you’re that rude, son of a bitch, we’ll just leave you. So take us out of your organization, you have done nothing here anyway.”


– Duterte at a news conference in August, reacting to concerns by U.N.-appointed human rights rapporteurs about drug-related killings.

THE BACKTRACK: Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay later assured that the Philippines isn’t bolting out of the 193-nation world body and clarified the context of the president’s remarks: “I can assure you that he remains committed to the United Nations, of which the Philippines is one of the founding members, and to the purposes and objectives of which this august body stands for.”

Story: Jim Gomez