The Reagan administration has just committed another major foreign policy blunder. This time Vice-President George Bush has full-heartedly embraced the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines. Ever since Marcos took complete control in September 1972 by declaring martial law, successive American governments, including both President Nixon's and Ford's, have avoided open support for Marcos's one-man rule.
Now, stating to President Marcos that "we love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes," Vice- President Bush has overnight reversed the nearly nine-year American policy of distancing the United States from identification with the Marcos regime while maintaining the flexibility to influence the tenor of the Philippine opposition forces.
How Marcos can be praised for his support of democratic processes is beyond understanding. Just two examples: in the June 16 presidential election the electorate were told they would be fined and/or imprisoned if they didn't vote, and a National Security code promulgated in June 1978 but not published until late last year makes it a crime to "rumor-monger and spread false information," especially that which "causes or tends to cause panic, divisive effects among the people . . . ." As third-world governments go, the Marcos regime may be relatively free but it is certainly not a democracy by any linguistic interpretation.
Yet, semantics are not the problem. The American blunder is not in calling the Philippines a democracy when it so manifestly is not; the blunder is in embracing Marcos so openly we have limited our options for dealing with alternatives to Marcos once he leaves office. Our new policy may be a mistake for us in more than one way. It may result in accelerating Marcos's downfall rather than restraining it.
Opposition forces have failed to develop an "Ayatollah" to threaten Marcos and have been unable to articulate an ideology for the times. Aside from the threat of armed conflict by the Muslims in the south and the communist-led New Peoples Army, the more conventional opposition forces have been led by defrocked congressmen and senators from the moribund Liberal and Nacionalista parties who have spent several years warring among themselves as well as with Marcos. Their attacks have often seemed to come across as nostalgic whining rather than as an alternative vision to the Marcos New Society.
Cries from the opposition have often been aimed as much at the US as at Marcos. There was a sense that only America could remove Marcos, that when the day of reckoning arrived America would anoint a new leader among the old politicos to replace Marcos. Not it appears that this option no longer obtains.
While the old opposition has failed to develop a new approach to Philippine problems, radical fringe groups have, and their thoughts have been moving closer to mainstream Filipino thinking. These groups, principally the leftist but communist-dominated National Democratic Liberation Front and activist elements of the Roman Catholic Church, have been relatively successful in gaining widespread acceptance for their main themes. These are:
* Concentration of economic power among the new oligarchy made up of Marcos's family and friends requires a major social revolution;
* Capitalism should be replaced by a more socialist state;
* American economic and military interests have recolonized the country;
* A new government must nationalize foreign businesses and expel American military forces.
In the view of many of the new oppositionists, the US is the problem, not part of the solution.
Vice-President Bush's statements only help to confirm this belief. By rejecting a policy which at best made America nuetral in the internal struggles of Philippine politics, the Reagan administration has added fuel to the fire of the radical elements in the Philippines as well as forced the old opposition groups to look elsewhere for support in their struggle.
Ironically, by making explicit American support for the Marcos regime, the Reagan administration may have contributed to the development of a more forceful Philippine opposition but one whose policies can only be inimical to US economic and strategic interests in the Philippines. The outlook for the Philippines is now one of greater violence.