When to intervene

EVENTS in the Philippines seem destined to trigger a new debate on the use and misuse of American power and influence around the world. In the case of the Philippines, did the United States involve itself too much, too little, too early, too late? The appraisal by press and pundits will begin soon. The course of the debate may change, with hindsight, as the problems of the post-Marcos era become clearer. For instance, the sinister role and purpose of the communist New People's Army remain unchanged. For these guerrillas and their supporters, the Marcos-Aquino confrontation has been merely a sideshow. That was a contest between the rich and the rich. The real contest, between the Marxist guerrillas and the ruling class, remains to be fought out.

If things go badly in the Philippines, many will be quick to point out how the US could have handled the situation differently and better. When dictators fall -- Ngo Dinh Diem, the Shah of Iran, and to a lesser extent Jean-Claude Duvalier -- the debate is inevitable.

But beyond the Philippines, there is a larger question of the extent to which the US should try to shape the course of events in other sovereign lands.

After its painful withdrawal from Vietnam, the US flirted briefly with isolationism. That did not, and could not, last. A superpower cannot abrogate global responsibilities. One of the ironies to behold during that period was the alarm of communist China, lest the US leave the field to an expansionist communist Soviet Union.

But how should these American responsibilities be defined in particular situations and regions?

Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, who has led the congressional attack on President Marcos, declared last week: ``It is essential . . . that the United States make it clear that we will not countenance the results of a stolen election.''

Clearly there was widespread congressional support for that stand on the Philippines. The Marcos regime, after all, had run the economy into the ground, fallen out with the Roman Catholic Church, muted the voice of the opposition, and stolen the election, and it was threatened by a communist insurgency.

Elsewhere in the world there is another regime that has run the economy into the ground, fallen out with the Roman Catholic Church, muted the voice of the opposition, and stolen the election, and it is not threatened by, but has embraced, the foreign communists who seek to steer its course.

That is not a regime of the right, but of the left. Its capital is not Manila, but Managua. Does this mean that we will now be hearing congressional demands that we not ``countenance the results of a stolen election'' in Nicaragua?

Stimulated by events in the Philippines, we will certainly hear demands for US action against other right-wing regimes. The criticism against South Korea is growing. What of such conservative nations as Saudi Arabia? Does the US have a responsibility to bring Jeffersonian democracy to that feudal desert land? Should it use the leverage of military aid to effect political change? If so, what about the use by Israel of American weaponry, supplied for defensive use, in the invasion of Lebanon? Should the US try to control Israeli settlement of the West Bank by withholding aid?

If the US is to use its power, influence, aid, to change the course of events -- if it can -- in countries that are allies, what of Nicaragua? What of Cuba? What of the countries of Eastern Europe? What, indeed, of the Soviet Union? Those are certainly countries that do not practice democracy as Americans would like to see it.

The harsh fact is that the world is not a tidy place and foreign policy cannot be conducted by computer. Protection of the national interest and the encouragement of democracy must remain the cornerstones of American foreign policy. But in their pursuit there must be intelligent analyses and case-by-case judgments.

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