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‘My friend President Duarte’

MANILA

President Donald Trump calling our president “Duarte” spoiled everything for the two of them. Before that, they had been doing well at being “friends.”

President Rodrigo Duterte and Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, got off on the wrong foot when the latter advised the former to “do it the right way,” meaning Duterte’s “war” on drugs. Obama’s reward: Being called an “SOB” by Duterte.

But when Trump got elected last year, both he and Mr. Duterte wanted to be friends. Trump made it a point to ignore Duterte’s war on drugs and was even reported by Duterte himself as telling him over the telephone that he was doing well with his campaign to rid the country of drug offenders.

Trump and Duterte met for the first time in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the Apec meetings there recently. And then again in Manila for the Asean Summit. All went well and both were happy.

But then Trump returned to Washington and mistakenly called Duterte “Duarte.” That, right there, spoiled things. How could someone not remember a friend’s name? That exposed the myth that they’re friends.

Which isn’t unusual among world leaders. That is actually the norm, that they really don’t know each other. Beyond what they read in their staff’s briefing papers and bullet points, national leaders know very little else about their counterparts.

They try to project an image that they get along, that they like each other and that sort of thing. But, really, unless they’ve had previous encounters or friendship, they only know each other by their respective reputations.

True, Trump and Japan’s Shinzo Abe seem to have established a personal liking to each other, having had a couple of chances to socialize and play golf together.

But they also need each other for geopolitical reasons, especially with the bellicose behavior of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and his nuclear weapons. For that very reason, Trump and Abe need to be allies, along with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in.

Do Trump and China’s Xi Jinping like each other? Do Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin? Ideologically, these leaders and their respective nations are traditional foes. But they have to strive to establish cordial relations to maintain general peace in the world.

In any case, how does one read the leanings and personal likes and dislikes of the inscrutable Xi? One can’t read him by looking at his face, which very rarely changes expression.

Putin, on the other hand, is one tough cookie, probably the most dangerous leader in the world today, notwithstanding the risky antics of North Korea’s Kim.

So, are Trump and Duterte friends? Sure, they are, as far as their interests go. In any case, Duterte is so volatile in temperament, it’s hard to predict who will be his latest friends.

Remember he “separated” from the United States and aligned himself with China and Russia against the world? Now that he’s warmed up to the United States again, what happens to his announced “separation” earlier from that nation?

It’s so easy to be friends with Mr. Duterte. As long as you don’t criticize his “war” on drugs, you’re okay. But when you do, you’re an SOB.

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