YOU have to hand it to Philippine President Corazon Aquino. She continues to prove herself a deft national leader. She charmed many American critics on her recent state visit to Washington, winning new United States aid dollars in the process. And she continues to sidestep criticism from within the Filipino military and business establishment. But what must now be asked is whether Mrs. Aquino has sufficient time to enable her to help transform her island nation into a more progressive, prosperous, and democratic mold. Aquino's task has been difficult. The former Marcos regime left a dispirited, debt-burdened economy.
Aquino's immediate threat comes from the right -- specifically, from supporters of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. It is no secret that he would like Aquino's job. His main criticism is that by seeking some form of negotiated peace with rebels, Aquino is endangering the Philippine government. She has now bowed somewhat to Mr. Enrile by saying she will set a deadline for a negotiated settlement. If rebels fail to meet the deadline, she would presumably unleash the military. But it should be noted that the insurgency has gone on for years; it is hardly fair to fault her for failing to do in eight months what Ferdinand Marcos could not do in more than a decade.
Unleashing the military will not alone solve the problem. The military is not yet ready for a full-scale civil war. Moreover, even if it were ready, such a strategy could be self-defeating.
The person who best understood all this was former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, who defeated communist insurgents back in the 1950s. His forces confronted rebel strongholds. But he also sought to meet the grievances of farmers and workers, while rebuilding national confidence. That process took more than half a decade.
Washington needs to get the message across to Enrile that US support for President Aquino is unequivocal. Aquino needs an unfettered shot at creating the type of Philippine society that can withstand the appeal of communism.