During the Philippine presidential campaigns in spring 2016, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg sided visibly with anti-Duterte forces, which led to several high-profile confrontations. After the controversial Ambassador left the Philippines, he wrote a “blueprint to undermine Duterte within 18 months.” Last month, the plan was leaked to The Manila Times, the oldest English-language daily in the Philippines.
It is not the first time Goldberg is associated with regime change efforts. In 2008 President Evo Morales and the Bolivian government gave him three days to leave the country after declaring him persona non grata – following Goldberg’s efforts to fund the opposition leaders, separatists and think-tanks with millions of dollars through USAID.
Yet, President Obama rewarded Goldberg by appointing him assistant secretary of state for Intelligence and Research; one of the 16 elements of the US Intelligence Community (IC). Thereafter he was sent to the Philippines, which he left in less than three years after efforts to intervene with the elections.
From Obama’s pivot to Goldberg’s regime change plan
After former President Benigno Aquino III’s designated successor – former interior minister Manuel Roxas, an ex-investment banker and Liberal Party leader who supports neoliberal policies and the U.S. pivot – failed to deliver a victory in the election, Goldberg began to devise his regime change plan. The latter seeks to foster public discontent with Duterte by isolating the Philippines through military assistance and economic “blackmail” relative to other ASEAN member countries.
Goldberg’s "divide and rule" plan seeks to split Philippine congressmen and senators, ASEAN states, and international multilateral organizations. He also advocates strengtheningthe pro-U.S. opposition through aids and grants. The plan calls on Washington to deploy economic, political and military forces against Duterte, “to bring him to his knees and eventually remove him from office.”
According to Daniel Russel, State Department’s assistance secretary for East Asian affairs, the allegations of a blueprint are false. However, Russel’s credibility is overshadowed by the fact that he remains a key figure in the U.S. pivot towards Asia. U.S.-based sources have also tried to discredit the blueprint as coming from China’s Philippine Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, which the executive editor of The Manila Times Dr. Dante Ang calls a “fantasy.”
As Washington sees it, the close ties between the two countries are rooted in the U.S. colonial regime in the Philippines between 1898 and 1946, broad military cooperation, a bilateral security alliance, and common strategic and economic interests. After these ties were cemented with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Washington and Manila in March 2016 chose half a dozen sites in the Philippines to host the rotation of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) military units. It was the first time that US military returned to the country since 1992 – after the end of the Marcos era (1965-86), when close bilateral cooperation left many Filipinos infuriated.
However, the alliance was predicated on smooth post-Obama continuity (but Clinton lost the U.S. election), the confirmation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Trump pledged to bury), and the victory of Aquino’s preferred successor Manuel “Mar” Roxas in the Philippines 2016 election (Roxas came second). After elections, questions about a “Mexico-style” narco state and its cooperation with military leaders during Roxas’ watch as interior minister led Duterte to order the investigation of five former and incumbent police generals led by retired general Marcelo Garbo Jr., a vocal supporter of Roxas, for involvement in illegal drugs.
Following his election triumph, Duterte has initiated a series of economic reforms, which are likely to accelerate growth to 7-7.5%, while recalibrating Manila’s relations away from Washington and toward Beijing and Moscow. In turn, the long-delayed Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea may be completed by mid-year.
Today, the State Department may see the Goldberg’s regime change plan as a way to undermine the outcome of democratic elections - in the name of democracy.
Exploiting political opposition, human rights and NGOs
Goldberg’s regime change plan builds on that stance by exploiting political opposition, human rights, non-governmental organizations, and international media. He advises “restraint in expressing public support for former President Fidel Ramos and Vice President Leni Robredo, and other opposition leaders so as not to alarm the Duterte administration of an impending destabilization or a coup.” Ramos’s ties with the U.S. go back to his training at West Point in 1960. In the 1980s, he was in President Marcos’s inner circle of national police and military. Following the fall of Marcos, he served as President Corazon Aquino’s military chief and subsequently as president. After serving Duterte as early emissary to China, he has criticized the administration’s efforts to weaken U.S. military ties.
In turn, Robredo is a lawyer and social activist, who the Duterte administration sees more loyal to Aquino’s Liberal coalition. Her relationship with the Cabinet fell apart on December 4, 2016, when she was informed by Cabinet Secretary “to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings.” Robredo won vice-presidency with a narrow margin against former senator Ferdinand Marcos. In his electoral protest, Marcos, former President Marcos’s son, alleged that the Liberal Party rigged the elections in favor of Robredo. The case is lingering in courts.
In the public debate, the point person has been Senator Leila de Lima, Aquino’s former Secretary of Justice, who chaired a senate inquiry into the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. She has been glorified by the BBC as “the woman who dares to defy Philippine president Duterte,” which is also the reason that she was invited to and awarded in the U.S. last month as one of the “leading 100 global thinkers” by the influential Democratic Foreign Policy.
In the Philippines, many see de Lima’s awards as perversions of justice, however. Through the Aquino era, she had a 7-year affair with her lucratively-rewarded driver Ronnie Dayan who served as her money collector for drug protection and campaign financing. During her watch, prison gangs still exerted control over the New Bilibid Prisons, while being coddled by incumbent political leaders, as evidenced by a Discovery Channel documentary. Last September, de Lima was removed from the Senate committee. Oddly enough, her international accolades ensued after the disclosure of the true nature of her activities as international media has ignored the pile of evidence of her abuse of public office and public funds.
The Goldberg plan also relies on NGOs, particularly a handful wealthy U.S. Filipinos linked with the Aquino circles, including billionaire philanthropist Loida Nicolas-Lewis and her sister, former chairwoman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas. Both are Vice President Robredo's supporters who have urged the members of the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC) "to ask Duterte to resign.”
A more influential source of funds is billionaire George Soros, who Duterte says has bankrolled local NGOs against him as he has been portrayed as a “mass murderer” in the West. International coverage has relied on these NGOs and think-tanks. Yet, in the Aquino III era, complacency with drug lords and narco politicians went hand in hand with the rise of some 3.7 million addicts, while international media was quiet about both. However, when Duterte started war against drugs, which has cost 6,000 lives, international ‘concern’ escalated rapidly.
"America First" via regime change?
Another signal came in mid-December, when the U.S.-based Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) did not renew its $430 million aid grant to the Philippines. While Manila’s criticism about “aid conditions” was reported as “tirades against America," the MCC is hardly independent. It is chaired by State Secretary John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and tens to precondition aid on neoliberal policies.
The MCC debacle is overshadowed by the economic implications of U.S.-Philippine military ties. Until 2010, the country’s military expenditures decreased two decades from 1.6% to 0.8% of GDP. During the Aquino era, which coincides with the U.S. pivot to Asia, the expenditures soared to almost 1.4%, according to SIPRI research - which in dollar terms is over five times the proposed aid package in just one year.
If a Ramos-Robredo scenario were to fail, Golberg plan advises exploiting possible rifts “among Duterte supporters,” or assisting “Robredo-led opposition groups”” coupled with the Catholic Church, business sector and NGOs. Yet, Duterte's support remains very high across all classes nationally, while the ratings of opposition figures have been declining. According to the latest Pulse Asia survey, Duterte approval and trust ratings in the Philippines is 83%. Only 5% of the nation disapproves his actions. As a result, any US-led regime change effort in the Philippines would face firm domestic, regional and international opposition.
Stability in the Philippines is also supported by Beijing. Amid the news about the “ouster plot,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was confident on Duterte’s leadership and would continue to support his policies. In turn, both Trump and Duterte have portrayed each other as good friends.
After January, Trump must reassess Goldberg’s regime-change plan scenarios in light of his own pledges, which are no longer subject to Obama’s pivot, shun US Interventionism abroad but hope to redefine “America First” policies in Asia.