Not too late to apologize to Goldberg and the US

Just as he had apologized to Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno for using harsh words in a recent exchange with her, President Rodrigo Duterte could gain some goodwill if he were to apologize to US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, the US government and the LGBT community for referring to him as "gayson of a bitch." The imprecation (for that's what it was) has no place in the language of governments, especially between two friendly governments; it is not just politically incorrect, it makes for "hate speech." The remark was offensive not only to the ambassador and his government, but even to his LGBT supporters.

Assuming Goldberg is gay, and so many people around the world are proud to proclaim they are, his sexual orientation is of no concern to the Philippine government, especially after it has accredited and received him, for what and who he is, as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States. Not even the intrusive, not always responsible, tabloid press has poked its nose into it.

The Blair case

In the '60s, at the beginning of the Vietnam war, I. P. Soliongco, the acknowledged dean of Filipino columnists, writing for the Manila Chronicle, wrote a blistering column entitled, "The Androgynous William Blair," referring to US Ambassador William McCormick Blair, Jr., a distinguished diplomat who belonged to the inner social set of Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy and traced his intellectual roots to that of Adlai Stevenson. Blair made many friends in the Philippines and had a successful career, which continued long after his posting here; he passed on in the US at the age of 98 on Aug. 25, 2015.

Soliongco's rhetorical piece was framed within the raging Vietnam war debate, where I. P. and his formidable Chronicle colleagues (Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Ernesto Granada, Ernesto del Rosario) took staunchly nationalist positions on the issues of the day; it was not merely a rude attempt to call the US ambassador names. Apparently Blair recognized the piece for what it was, and, as far as memory serves, took no offense at the editorial piece. It was not unusual in those days for the US ambassador to be burned in effigy in anti-war demonstrations in front of the embassy and other public places.

A different world

The global environment has changed since. In the US, the Supreme Court has legalized "same-sex marriage." Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, is trying to bring down the level of his countrymen's devotion to political correctness, but his chances of success seem rather limited. In Sweden in 2005, Protestant Pastor Ake Green was jailed for one month for preaching a sermon on homosexuality two years earlier, based solely on passages from Scripture. He simply asked the question, "Is Homosexuality Genetic or an Evil Force that Plays Mind Games with People?" He did not call for any action against practicing homosexuals at all.

But he was prosecuted under a Swedish law, which prohibits expression of "disrespect toward favored minority groups." He won his case on appeal, but the prosecution appealed the case further to the Supreme Court asking for a longer sentence. On my last visit to Europe not too long ago, I saw the pastor's predicament: one senior minister I met in Germany was living and socializing openly with his partner of the same sex, with the full approval of his Cabinet colleagues, the diplomatic corps, the media and the public.

In Manila, US Ambassador Harry Thomas started hosting Gay Pride receptions and displaying LGBT banners within the US Embassy premises during his watch. These appear to have become part of the Embassy's regular diplomatic functions, and Goldberg may have hosted some of them. The LGBT community as such has grown not only in civil society but also in government, including the armed forces and the police. The House of Representatives has its first transgender member sitting, and turning heads, in the present Congress. The LGBT presence is probably strongest in show business, entertainment, social media and the mainstream press.

The phenomenon is worldwide. And public reaction varies from place to place.

On June 12, this year, in Orlando, Florida, a 29-year-old security guard killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub, a place frequented by the LGBT crowd. The attack prompted a worldwide outpouring of grief and condolences for the victims and condemnations for the terrorist and ISIS. American politicians of every color and creed tried to be heard on the carnage, but the strongest criticisms ran against those who, while condemning the terrorist attack, were not sufficiently outraged that the victims were killed because they were gays. A couple of days ago, a Protestant pastor in Orlando was brought to court for allegedly expressing relief (joy) that 49 "pedophiles" had been eliminated.

What DU30 and Yasay must grasp

This is the kind of environment PDU30 has to contend with when he says he will not apologize for his unrepeatable remarks against Goldberg. This is also what Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. fails to appreciate. DU30 may dismiss it as a minor thing, which the State Department has decided to shove under the rug, but that could be a mistake. In politics, national or international, one can sometimes forgive everything else except the minor injuries. We saw this in the case of Marcos and Erap Estrada in their last days in office.

Washington's real problem with Marcos had to do with the bases. The Americans wanted the term extended after the expiration of the bases agreement in 1991. But they could not get any indication that Marcos would agree to it, having caused the same agreement to be shortened in 1966 from the original 99 years to the next 25 years. They could not openly attack him for this, since he was merely upholding a sovereign agreement, to which the US had earlier fully consented. They had to exploit other issues.

What happened to Marcos and Erap

While casting around for other issues, certain rumors were heard about one senior US diplomat allegedly having an affair with a former international beauty queen. These rumors were traced to chattering sources at the Palace. Former Secretary of State George Shultz fails to mention these in his Memoir (Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State), which contains an interesting chapter on the last days of Marcos; but these obviously helped to hasten the erosion of the embassy's support for the President.

Something else happened to Estrada. As a senator Estrada had voted against Cory Aquino's treaty extending the bases agreement by another 10 years. When he ran for and became President he had a solid mass base that refused to recognize his inherent and most obvious defects as a candidate, and as head of State. His personal excesses scandalized the diplomatic community, but because of his perceived popularity with the masses, none of them dared criticize him in public.

But the turning point came when US President Clinton sent Erap a written request, handcarried by Defense Secretary William Cohen, that he suspend his "all-out war" against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, because an American had walked into the MILF camp and been taken hostage. Erap read the letter, but told Cohen it was too late-he had already issued the order and could no longer recall it. Cohen asked if Erap could at least speak to Clinton on the phone and explain the situation to him in person. Erap said there was no point, since he could no longer do anything about it. This was something nobody ever did to the President of the most powerful nation on earth.

These "minor injuries" had unimaginable consequences. Marcos was eventually ousted by a civilian- and US-backed military coup, which installed Cory Aquino as revolutionary President; Estrada was similarly ousted in a judicially assisted coup after a botched Senate impeachment trial, which installed his Vice President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in his place. In the Goldberg incident, the injury may not be as small as DU30 and Yasay seem to think it is; it could precipitate unforeseen consequences.

Don't mess with this diplomat

Last week, the State Department summoned Patrick Chuasoto, Charge d'Affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC, to explain DU30's "inappropriate" remarks. The Press Director of the State Department issued a press statement showing the US government's concern about the whole incident. Goldberg, according to the spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau, "is a multi-time ambassador, one of our most senior diplomats."

What did the Charge say to the State Department? And what did the head of the Philippine Desk or someone higher say to the Charge? Nothing about their conversation has so far been reported. But the Charge could not have done much better than the Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, when he was grilled by Al Jazeera's news anchor Mehdi Hasan on PDU30's "true intention" in saying the various things he has been saying to the press and the public.

Misreading the State Department

I raised this matter with Yasay during a Roundtable conference at The Manila Times on Monday morning, but he appeared confident that the Goldberg incident had been laid to rest by the Charge's appearance at the State Department. Nothing more has been heard from the State Department, he said; no need to belabor the point. I do not share that confidence.

In Marcos' time, I heard no complaints from the State Department against rumor-mongering from inside the Palace about the alleged womanizing by some senior US diplomats. (I had left the Cabinet by then, and had heard about the Palace rumors, but nothing about any reaction from the State Department.) Neither did I hear anything from the State Department or the Pentagon after Erap had refused to talk to Clinton on the telephone about his all-out war against the MILF. I was a senator then and was present in Malacanang when Cohen delivered Clinton's letter and Erap read it. But the lack of official State reaction in either case failed to prove that all was well. Quite the contrary.

DU30's rude remark about Goldberg is now in the public domain, and will probably remain there for so long as it is not formally withdrawn or amended. Meanwhile, Goldberg is scheduled to leave Manila soon for his next assignment. He will be succeeded by a professional Asian-American diplomat who is an old hand in North Korean affairs. DU30 should pray that Goldberg is not assigned in a post where he could make important decision calls on US policies or programs affecting the Manila government. He cannot possibly expect any favors from Goldberg.

Robredo has her own play, too

While DU30 remains non-apologetic on this incident, Vice President Leni Robredo is getting a lot of wooing from the old Hyatt-10 and BS Aquino 3rd crowd, and also from some outsiders trying to connect her to some interventionist governments. They clearly want to play the Vice President's card, and despite her newfound relationship with the President, she may not be able to resist the temptation of being played. For now, these are mostly local players with limited capabilities. But powerful external actors could weigh in, if DU30 does not watch out. This is one reason why DU30 may find it in his self-interest to apologize to Goldberg, the US government and the LGBT community, even at this late stage.

Source: Inter Press Service