MEG Greenfield in a recent Newsweek column found an explanation for the too-frequent ineffectiveness of American foreign policy in our addiction to ''dog's-breakfast centrism.'' By this she meant policies of ''a little of this and a little of that,'' which by ''bowing in every direction'' prevent us from affecting the course of events abroad to our advantage.
A classic example of dog's-breakfast centrism is the amalgam of contradictory American policies toward the Philippines. These, it appears, are designed to strengthen President Marcos and to persuade him to give his political opponents a chance to replace him.
In recent months Marcos has faced a growing balance-of-payments crisis exacerbated by a massive flight of capital abroad and by a reluctance of the foreign financial community to extend new loans. The crisis is the result of long-term economic mismanagement which a high Philippine official has attributed to ''many bad projects.'' Most seem to have been chosen more for their profitability to Marcos and friends than for their value to the Philippines. One US banker observed that the Philippines is the only country in the region where the Asian model of development has been completely botched.
But the balance-of-payments crisis is also due to deliberate efforts by the Philippine business community to weaken the Marcos regime through demonstrations intended to discourage foreign lenders and investors. This endeavor is a response to last August's assassination of Benigno Aquino. That event convinced the educated stratum that Marcos's inner circle will not allow power to slip from their grasp once he is gone and that the inner-circle reign would be harsher and more inept than his.
Marcos's opponents believe that the best hope of restoring a moderate, democratic government would lie in holding honest legislative elections on May 14. Such elections would lend some legitimacy to Marcos's new constitution while allowing his critics to assume the role of the loyal opposition and to prepare to contest the next presidential elections. If, on the other hand, Marcos were to continue to rule through electoral manipulation and force, with an opposition denied a legislative role, then his wife and generals would find it easier to install themselves in his place. And that, most observers are convinced, could bring on a civil war from which the communist New People's Army might emerge as the winner.
Our government's reaction has been to work at cross-purposes. On the one hand , Marcos has been told by US officials that the causes of his troubles are not simply economic; that they stem from a loss of political confidence in his regime; that until he broadens participation in the political process by holding fair elections neither the political nor economic crisis will go away. At the same time Washington has made itself the center of an international rescue effort to put together a package of loans for the Philippines and has speeded up scheduled US disbursements to tide it over until loans arrive. The main purpose of this rescue effort may be to help the Filipino people. But it also strengthens President Marcos, who holds them hostage.
There is, a US official asserts, no direct link between the financial rescue and the political-persuasion aspects of current US-Philippine policy. While Marcos will have to make economic alterations as a condition for this financial bailout, no hard conditions for political change are imposed.
Few Filipinos expect Marcos to give the opposition a fair chance at elections except under extreme pressure. His granting to the opposition a meager two seats on the nine-member Commission on Elections (before Marcos, Comelec was an impartial three-member body) and the continued near-monopoly control of the media by his kinsmen give little reason for optimism. To his critics, an American-led financial rescue operation without prior extraction of fundamental changes guaranteeing fair elections in May seems hard to reconcile with our professed wish to see democracy restored.
The pursuit of contradictory policies toward Marcos's government is not new to the Reagan administration. It differs little from its three predecessors. What is new is that for the first time since Marcos imposed his dictatorship the Philippine payments crisis gives the US real leverage to affect the course of political developments. Even Filipino nationalists who habitually decry American intervention now ask the US to use that leverage to help them restore democracy. We can do so through a benign neglect of Marcos foreign-exchange needs until he has come to terms with the responsible opposition.
There are moments in history when a decisive foreign policy can achieve prodigious results. This is one such moment in our relationship with the Philippines. But if it is allowed to pass unused, such a moment may not come again. That would be a tragedy for both countries.