Editorial: Confronting shared threats with an unsavory ally

The Orange County Register
Guest Editorial


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is not a nice man. His war on drugs has taken the lives of thousands upon thousands in extrajudicial killings.

He jokes publicly about rape — telling troops in Mindanao, where he recently imposed martial law, that he’d go to the mat for them if they employed serial rape in the course of enforcing the crackdown.

President Donald Trump has received a barrage of criticism for inviting Duterte to a personal meeting at the White House. But as the United States and the wider West failed to stop the spread of the Islamic State beyond its Mideast base, the terrorists zeroed in on the Philippine islands — specifically Mindanao — teeing up a superficially difficult choice for America. If Duterte is bad, the Islamic State is worse.

In part, Duterte himself is to blame for the misfortune. Mindanao has been home to separatists and splinter groups for nearly a half-century, and a headquarters for Islamists since the 1990s.

A casual observer could be forgiven for expecting that, in the wake of failed peace talks between the government and the would-be rebels, the latest round of jihad-inflected violence would remain a fundamentally local problem. But Duterte needed to know better.

This time, insurgents aligned with the Islamic State brought to Mindanao an international stature and theological fanaticism capable of fueling a much bigger problem than Duterte anticipated.

Now, his troops are battling not only a cadre of hardened jihadis, but a movement wired in with the global Islamist superstructure. And as important as a willingness to use force may be in excising Islamist tumors, it is hard to be sure that Duterte alone can beat the militants without breeding even deeper resentment and radicalization.

A warning this week from Indonesia’s defense minister, that as many as 1,200 foreign IS fighters have set up shop in the Philippines, came as an embarrassing public surprise to Duterte’s military. Adding to the confusion, a recent botched casino assault claimed by the Islamic State has been dismissed by police as an attempted robbery.

Amid such uncertainty and fear, militants grow bold and flourish.

There is some good news. Starting later this month, Indonesia will join the Philippines, along with neighboring Malaysia, in routine joint naval patrols around Mindanao and in the Sulu Straits. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, meanwhile, pledged his country’s assistance should Duterte request it.

But the role of the United States is yet to be set in stone. For the Trump administration, Southeast Asia is a problem spot in its own right. China’s aggressive moves to all but capture the South China Sea have put it on the outs with the region’s other states, but Washington is hard pressed to harm Sino-American relations while working overtime to activate Chinese leverage against North Korea.

Still, the situation in Mindanao offers the White House an opportunity to take a leadership role for a legitimate reason that won’t bleed over into other issue areas already bedeviling policymakers.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to make right what went wrong with anti-Islamist strategy under Obama if Duterte himself is kept at arm’s length. The hard lesson of globalization today is that, while violence threatening all kinds of people is growing worldwide, cultural differences around basic questions of justice and morality are, if anything, sharpening.

Confronting shared threats despite such uncomfortable diversity won’t always feel good. But it will be necessary.

— The Orange County Register, June 9