American officials are trying their best to ignore the incendiary remarks of President Rodrigo Duterte, in a bid to ratchet down the tension between the US and the new administration in the Philippines. But at least one senator didn’t get the memo and now the US once again comes off as a bully, justifying Duterte’s belief that the Americans can’t be relied upon as our longtime ally and main defense partner.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. was not at all surprised that a US senator has blocked the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police. To Yasay, Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, was “arrogant” and would not listen to his explanations about the war on drugs being waged by the Duterte administration.
Yasay said he met the senator on a recent trip to the US, where he was sent by Duterte to explain what he was trying to do to stop the proliferation of illegal drugs. One time, he talked to a bunch of American officials, including Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee.
“I was speaking to a group of officials when this senator just stood up and left,” Yasay recounted. “I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but what he did struck me as arrogant.”
This week, Cardin sent word to the US State Department that he was blocking the sale of the M4 assault rifles procured by the PNP from an American manufacturer, citing concerns about the killings that have attended Duterte’s drug war. The US Congress has the power to question sales of arms to foreign countries and Cardin’s committee has oversight functions over the State Department—which understandably did not comment on the senator’s boneheaded action.
Last Sept. 26, he described the Philippine president’s anti-drug campaign in a Senate speech as “systematic, wide-spread, brutal and beyond the bounds for a constitutional democracy.” And to think that Cardin has never even set foot in Manila’s world-famous airport or experienced gridlock on Edsa yet.
Philippine officials were quick to point out that the Philippines did not really have to buy arms from the Americans, our longtime sentimental source for military materiel. The M4 assault rifle that the PNP was buying, after all, has many variations that are also manufactured by suppliers in Israel, Russia, Europe and China—at lower prices and with better quality.
Duterte himself was dismissive of the blocked sale, which only gave him a new opportunity to bash the Americans. Other officials like Senator Panfilo Lacson wondered if the American senator was not really hurting the US’ own arms-makers, predicting that the aftermath of the failed deal was like going from “one gun store to another.”
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said that while Cardin’s action would delay the PNP’s timetable in the eradication of illegal drugs, it would not do any more damage than that. The procurement of the M4s, Esperon said, was not made with any concessions or discounts because of the mutual security treaties in force between the two countries.
It was a straight-up deal involving hard currency that we were paying for American firearms. If the Americans don’t want our money, we can certainly offer it to someone else— and probably get a better deal all around.
And if the US really wanted to punish Duterte, it can certainly do better than taking money from its own arms manufacturers and sending it to other countries. Well played, Mr. Senator; all the other gun manufacturers outside the US will surely give money for your reelection, if you hit them up for campaign funding.
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And like clockwork, the US-based Human Rights Watch hailed the aborted sale, which it called “the first real US move to put teeth in its criticism of… Duterte’s drug war” that “hit the [Philippine] police where it hurts, [its] efforts to expand [its] arsenal.” In a statement in the group’s website, HRW deputy director for Asia Phelim Kline said Duterte is “now on notice that the blood-letting they have encouraged carries a cost with its longtime ally.”
Kline feverishly warned that other US funding to the Philippines police, “including $9 million in State Department aid for counter-narcotics and law enforcement programs for 2017 and $32 million in assistance pledged by US Secretary of State John Kerry in July, may be at risk unless [Duterte and PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa] stop the killings and honor their government’s obligation to defend, rather than abuse, the rights of Filipinos.” Me, I’ll have what Kline’s been smoking, please.
HRW has always maintained, even without investigating any of the so-called extra-judicial killings since Duterte launched his drug war, that the president himself has ordered the execution of the thousands that have been killed in the anti-narcotics campaign. The only reports of state-sponsored killings that HRW has seen are apparently those emanating from the foreign media and the anti-Duterte political opposition in the Philippines.
If Cardin’s action stopping the sale of assault rifles to the PNP is the US’ first real action against Duterte, why isn’t the State Department announcing it as such? Why doesn’t Barack Obama himself say that the US will now tighten the screws on Duterte if he doesn’t shape up?
Unless you’re irreversibly pro-American and anti-Duterte, you’ll know why: Cardin just threw a monkey wrench in the US’ plans to ignore Duterte’s trash-talking and to not give him any more reason to make the Americans look bad to Filipinos and to the world.
And you wonder why Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is now in Beijing, talking about signing a new mutual defense agreement with the Chinese? Get a grip, HRW.