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Commentary

Duterte’s operational code

OF LATE, there has been a spate of speculations and premature analyses of the language, behavior and articulations of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte. It is quite apparent that this 71-year-old former city prosecutor and mayor of Davao City for more than two decades has caught the attention of every sector of our society both here and elsewhere because he is not cut from the same cloth as traditional politicians.

Allow me to propose a way to “understand” our new President: the operational code, a procedure used by political psychologists to map out the belief systems of a political leader and glean therefrom the more likely strategies—nay, tactics—that this leader may undertake.

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The construct was first used by political scientist Nathan Constantin Leites in the early 1950s, when he wrote about the operational code of the Soviet Politburo. It was reported later in a dissertation on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that Leites’ work was used by members of the executive committee of then US President John F. Kennedy at the height of the crisis, and that it provided them with some basis for dealing with the then head of the Kremlin, Nikita Khrushchev.

Much later, the operational code was adopted by another political psychologist, Alexander George, who devised a scoring procedure to make a content analysis of the various sources of these beliefs and rendered them measurable and comparable across political leaders being studied.

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The operational code is an attempt to map out in broad strokes how a leader views the world—how it works, what it is like, and what is the best approach or strategies to achieve one’s goals. It consists of two parts: philosophical beliefs and instrumental beliefs.

Philosophical beliefs map out the leader’s view of: the fundamental nature of politics (chaos or order?); the image of the opponent; the prospects for achieving one’s goal (pessimist or optimist?); the extent to which outcomes are predictable; the extent to which the leader can influence historical developments and control outcomes (does he make things happen, or does he wait for things to happen to him?); and the role of chance.

Instrumental beliefs are a general map of what the leader will choose as the best strategies to achieve goals on the basis of his philosophical beliefs. If he is basically an optimist and he thinks he can influence or control the outcomes of historical developments, he is most likely to be a high, rather than low, risk taker. These beliefs may clue us in on what strategies and courses of actions the leader will more likely take to produce a desired outcome. Further, these will also give us a handle on the “timing” of his decisions on the basis of his calculations of risks and the image of the opponent(s).

While there may be other ways of understanding a political leader “from a distance,” the use of the operational code has been deemed quite effective by many political scientists in attempting to understand the leader’s behavior, actions, or decisions. It is interesting to note that the doctoral dissertations of Professor George’s students were mostly written using this construct. (Historical footnote: In the early 1980s when I met with George at Stanford University, he urged me to critique the construct after I made some remarks on the western-centric nature of the questions posed for the analyses of belief systems. Alas, other things intervened in my academic life, and I have not quite fulfilled my promise to him until this date.)

The sources of the operational code are many: speeches, interviews, articles written by the leader or by others, autobiographies, biographies, and other verbal and written outputs of the leader. All of these will be subject to content analysis using George’s scoring system, as well as qualitative measures suggested by other scholars in the field.

President-elect Duterte is in his 70s, and we can assume that his personality attributes are more or less stable (i.e., they are less likely to change). Thus, he will be an excellent subject for this construct.

Offhand, and on the basis of what I have read from various sources plus stories of friends and colleagues who worked with him at various periods of his political life, I can surmise that he views the world as an anarchic or chaotic one, and is a fairly optimistic person who will make things happen rather than allow things to happen to him. He will be a high risk taker rather than a low risk taker, and will choose strategies and any and all courses of action that will advance his desired ends.

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My “reading” of his operational code is necessarily a very rough one as I would need to go through the torturous content analyses of all available sources of his articulation, undertake both quantitative and qualitative methods of analyzing his beliefs, and, whenever possible, even conduct probe interviews with him. It is a dream to be realized.

Why map out the President-elect’s operational code? The short answer is that this construct has one of the best explanatory powers and appeals in demonstrating the nexus between his belief system and his decision-making behavior.

(Historical piece of trivia: Many years back, per the request of then President Ferdinand Marcos who was scheduled to visit the United States, I wrote a small paper on the operational code of then US President Ronald Reagan. I was informed later that he found my study quite useful when he met with Reagan in Washington.)

Clarita R. Carlos, PhD, is a retired UP professor of political science, former president of the

National Defense College of the Philippines, executive director of the StratSearch Foundation Inc., and one of the pioneers of the field of political psychology in the Philippines.

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TAGS: Commentary, Davao, Duterte, operational code, opinion, Rodrigo Duterte
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