IN what must be considered an ominous turn in the Philippines, assassins, presumed to be communist, killed one retired and two active-duty United States servicemen near Clark Air Base. Before this attack, communist rebels had mostly refrained from attacking either US personnel or bases. If the killings prove, over time, to be other than an isolated event, it will signal the communists' intention to dangerously raise the US profile in the vortex of Philippine instability. If so, the timing is propitious. In 1991, the treaty governing US installations in the Philippines will expire, and next year Filipino and American negotiators will meet in an attempt to reach agreement on the bases' future.
A significant part of US economic and military aid to Manila is tied to the US military presence in the Philippines and, undoubtedly, part of the reason for the killings is to sever that link by raising the post-Vietnam specter of direct US military involvement. If the attacks continue, the question of continuing the bases and risking direct US military intervention could surface as a major issue in next year's presidential election.
By threatening American lives and facilities, however, the communists are playing a deadly, double-edged game. Their actions could prompt a concerted US military response that could overwhelm the New People's Army (NPA), the Communist Party's armed wing. At the same time, such a reaction could also serve other rebel goals, which could justify the risk inherent in this new course of action.
At present, there is an ideological gap between the Marxist leadership, many of whom are college educated and from the cities, and a largely non-ideological peasant rank and file. Historically, Filipino peasants have rebelled for reasons that had little to do with Marx and everything to do with pervasive rural poverty.
As a result, peasants have abandoned the rebel cause for a variety of reasons - declarations of amnesty, official promises of rural reform, a reduction in the military's abuse of the peasantry, among them - that fell short of espoused revolutionary goals.
Because of the non-ideological nature of many of its soldiers, the NPA remains vulnerable to genuine reformist initiatives by Manila, an avenue that may be lost if the US military directly intervenes. Such intervention carries with it the inevitability of greater American firepower and its corollary, a dramatic increase in civilian casualties.
Should this develop, the rebel hand would be strengthened in two ways: by dramatically increasing the pool of popular discontent, and by underscoring a major tenet not currently held by most Filipinos, i.e., that the United States, and its ally, the Aquino government, are malevolent forces against which armed struggle cannot be abandoned.
For the US, the greatest danger, particularly if the attacks continue, is overreaction, which, in its most damaging form, would constitute direct military involvement in the civil war. An appropriate response is to limit US participation to the gathering and sharing of intelligence with Philippine authorities, while pursuit of the rebels should be left to the Philippine military.
There are sound reasons for such restraint, the first of which is that a more aggressive policy is, for the moment, unnecessary. The likely venues for future attacks are the towns and villages surrounding the bases. These communities derive much of their income from free-spending US servicemen and are fundamentally pro-American. Attacks against US personnel will prompt local vigilance in apprehending assassins, a reaction that undermines a critical guerrilla principle: to gain the support of the people.
A more important reason for a low-key approach is that anything more, within American political circles, could prompt a movement to close the US bases unilaterally. While the removal of the US military presence is within the realm of policy options - and is a long-term goal favored by many Filipinos, including Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus - the timing and manner of such a move are paramount.
Given the significant Soviet military presence in Vietnam and the Philippines' own Marxist threat, the premature closure of the bases would destabilize both the Philippines and the region.
A better approach is to increase security around US facilities, severely restrict the off-base travel of US servicemen and other personnel, and, perhaps more important, reduce the number of potential terrorist targets by reducing the population of the bases.
The US maintains a sizable military presence of about 16,800 in the Philippines, a figure excluding dependents. This figure must be pared, and those allowed to stay should have one qualifying trait: talents essential to maintaining US strategic interests. Anything more would be surplus, unnecessary, and, under present conditions, unwise as well.
Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.