The United States is once again taking a human rights stand that irks Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, halting the sale of assault rifles to the Philippine police. This time, however, the opposition originated from the Senate, not the executive branch. Reuters explains:
The U.S. State Department halted the sale of the assault rifles to the Philippine police after U.S. Senator Ben Cardin said he would oppose it, Senate aides told Reuters on Monday.
Aides said Cardin, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was reluctant for the United States to provide the weapons given concern about human rights violations in the Philippines during Duterte’s bloody, four-month-old war on drugs.
“Look at these monkeys, the 26,000 firearms we wanted to buy, they don’t want to sell,” Duterte said during a televised speech.
It is standard practice for the State Department to inform Congress of upcoming weapons sales. In this case, Cardin used his clout in the Senate to pre-emptively halt the deal. Spokesmen for the State Department and White House have criticized Duterte’s extrajudicial drugs crackdown in the past, but this is the first major instance where Congress has gotten involved, apparently against the wishes of the executive branch.
For Duterte, however, the niceties of our checks-and-balances system are beside the point. The Philippine president is already depicting the episode as proof of Washington’s unreliability, and another unwelcome instance of American interference. Duterte also said that he may look to Russia and China as alternative suppliers:
“Russia, they are inviting us. China also. China is open, anything you want, they sent me brochure saying we select there, we’ll give you.”
There are, undeniably, legitimate reasons to be critical of Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign, which has left over 2,300 people dead. Still, Cardin’s decision to intervene in the arms sale complicates American policymaking at a time when Washington wants to avoid giving Duterte a pretext for further “separation” from the United States. Despite his eccentricities, Duterte remains popular at home, and he will surely use the latest news to bolster his case that Beijing is a better partner than Washington.
The episode illustrates the eternal tension between foreign policy pragmatism and human rights liberalism, a battle that often plays out between the executive and Congress. As always, the question is one of finding the right balance: American foreign policy cannot be divorced from human rights concerns, but policymakers must consider the strategic implications of a placing human rights above all else.
In this case, alienating Duterte over a few thousand assault rifles could drive him to China even quicker, with no meaningful change in his anti-drug policy to show for it. The next administration, and Congress, will need to weigh such consequences carefully in seeking the right balance with Duterte.