US Embassy press attaché has hands full
Just how do you launch a charm offensive to counter President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh words against the United States?
Fortunately, the job of parrying such jabs has fallen on an articulate, seasoned and, incidentally, female American diplomat.
Molly Rutledge Koscina, who can intimidate with her 5’10” frame and disarm with her generous smiles, found her hands full when she took on the job as press attaché and first secretary of the US Embassy over a month ago. She succeeded former spokesperson Kurt Hoyer.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s really been nonstop press queries,” Koscina told Inquirer editors during her visit to the newspaper’s offices last week.
Koscina admitted that in her 12 years in the US State Department, and her previous postings in Havana, Cuba, and Beijing and Shanghai in China, she had not encountered anything like a President mouthing off against a traditional ally.
“In my memory, there were never words like these against the United States,” Koscina said.
Since becoming President, Mr. Duterte has declared he was no fan of the US, notwithstanding the Philippines’ long-standing ties with the world’s most powerful nation.
In recent weeks, the President has thrown an expletive against President Obama (among other world leaders, including Pope Francis and the United Nations’ Ban Ki-moon), used a sexist slur against outgoing US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, and announced he was sending the US forces in Mindanao packing, as well as ending 34 years of joint military exercises with the US.
In response, Obama canceled a scheduled meeting with Mr. Duterte on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Laos in early September.
He reportedly told President Duterte, “My men will talk to you,” when the two leaders met later in a holding room. Mr. Duterte upped the discomfort level in the US-Asean meeting by showing pictures of a pit where thousands of Muslims massacred by US troops at the turn of the century were dumped.
Incensed by criticisms about extrajudicial killings and human rights violations spawned by his war on drugs, President Duterte has called out the US for “hypocrisy,” and served notice that he would seek new alliances with China and Russia.
Such is the current state of PH-US relations, and Koscina finds her job cut out for her and her deputy, Emma Nagy.
“We heard the same thing you heard and then we heard the statements of (Foreign) Secretary (Perfecto) Yasay,” Koscina said, noting the clarifications that the Foreign Affairs secretary had made on many of the President’s statements against the US.
But the US had yet to receive official communication stating a change of status in the Philippines’ diplomatic relations or military alliance with the US, Koscina said.
In the absence of any written notice, she said, the US side will honor long-standing ties with the Philippines.
“The US government has not received any official communication on those statements so we continue to focus on the breadth of our relationship with the Philippines. It really is an amazing, long-standing relationship so we continue to do business as usual,” Koscina told Inquirer editors.
But Koscina upheld the US statements expressing concern on extrajudicial killings.
With Goldberg wrapping up his tenure as ambassador, the White House has announced the appointment of Sung Y. Kim as the next US ambassador to the Philippines. The former US ambassador to South Korea will be the first Asian-American ambassador to Manila.
Koscina told the Inquirer editors that she’d like to make sure her office will be able to give adequate and timely response to questions from the media.
“It’s an opportunity to see what changes I can make in our information office to better connect with Filipinos,” she added.
In a light moment with the Inquirer editors, Koscina displayed her diplomatic skills by refusing to compare Mr. Duterte with other world leaders. This was before Thursday, when the President compared himself with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Thus far, Koscina has yet to meet the Filipino firebrand.
“I don’t know if I will have that opportunity,” she said when asked if she looks forward to meeting the President.
Koscina said the decision to post her in Manila was made in November last year, a decision she and her family welcomed because it was in fact her top choice for her next posting.
“Manila was on top of my list, and my husband and I decided this is really where we wanted to be,” said the press attaché, who looks forward to scuba diving in the country’s famed dive spots and settling her family in their new home.
Since her arrival on Aug. 18, she had been to Tagaytay and tried some of the iconic Filipino dishes.
She said Manila was top of her list for its good schools and medical care, and for being a “safe and happy place to live.”
“Also (because of) your world-renowned hospitality and our excellent bilateral relationship,” Koscina added.
“That was in November!” the Inquirer editors chorused, ribbing Koscina.
“I didn’t say that,” Koscina retorted, smiling and rolling her eyes in a playful rebuke. “I’m still happy to be here.”
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