What price US military bases?

The latest example of a recurring and painful dilemma of United States foreign policy is provided by the Philippines. The dilemma is: What kind of trade-offs should be made for foreign military base rights?

Every administration since World War II has wrestled with this problem in one country or another, with varying degrees of success. This is not the first time it has had to be faced in the Philippines; the problem is now simply becoming more acute.

When the Philippines became independent in 1946, the US retained the rights to Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base. These installations are not only strategically important; they also represent very large economic investments. With the reversion of Okinawa to Japan, with the withdrawal of the US from Indochina, and with the reduction of the American presence in Thailand, Clark and Subic are the only sizable American bases south of Korea and Japan and west of Hawaii.

Over the years, successive Filipino governments have demanded various American quid pro quos for continued use of the bases. These quid pro quos have generally taken the form of military and economic assistance; the US has also agreed to a largely symbolic exercise of Filipino sovereignty. During the 1960s, the Johnson administration substantially increased American aid as a way of paying (without admitting it) for a token Filipino unit in Vietnam; this was part of a broader attempt to lend a multilateral color to the American involvement there. A former secretary of defense, in a burst of candor during a recent private discussion, referred to the current aid program as ''a bribe to President Marcos for the use of the bases.''

That may perhaps make things look worse than they are, but it underscores one of the problems: The quid pro quos for foreign military bases unavoidably link the American government in the public mind with whatever government is in power in the country in question. More often than not in the third world, this government is authoritarian, unpopular, and perhaps corrupt. When such a government is overthrown, as has frequently happened, American base rights are likely to go with it.

Currently in the Philippines, President Marcos is grappling with mounting opposition from two sources. Communist, or at least radical leftist, insurgents seem to be gaining strength in the countryside. (These are the insurgents whose demise has been periodically announced for 30 years.) And more moderate groups, led by followers of the assassinated Benigno Aquino, are organizing larger and larger demonstrations in the cities. The Reagan administration's response to this is a request to Congress to increase military assistance. Even the Carter administration muted its concern for human rights because of the importance of the bases.

It would be a great deal cleaner and more straightforward simply to send the government of the Philippines (and the governments of other countries where we have bases) a check and call it rent. This would make it possible to deal with such governments more at arm's length, and that is precisely why such an arrangement is not acceptable to many of the governments. They would rather have the close relationship implied by an aid program or even by military sales.

When Haile Selassie was emperor of Ethiopia, he rejected a proposal of rent for a communications facility at Asmara and demanded jet aircraft instead. He is no longer emperor, and we no longer have a facility at Asmara. The Shah of Iran did not want rent for American intelligence-gathering bases; he wanted to spend a great deal of Iran's own money for the most advanced American weaponry. The Shah is no longer Shah, we no longer have the bases, and much of the weaponry that is still operational is being used to fight a war with Iraq. These weapons were supposed to enhance the security of the Persian Gulf; they have instead weakened it.

American base rights in both Greece and Turkey have been caught up in the continuing feud between those countries. The bases have been a central consideration in the vacillating American policy toward the feud, to the neglect of other considerations.

None of this is to say that base rights should not be an important, perhaps in some cases the dominant, consideration. Given the unsettled conditions in the world and the worldwide nature of American interests, the US needs foreign military bases. But it needs some bases more than others, and the tendency is to make the best deal we can with the government of a country where the Defense Department thinks it needs a base. Rarely is the value of a base weighed against the intangible price we pay for it. Rarely are alternatives to a particular base considered. Sometimes it is discovered that we can get along very well without a base once described as essential. Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya is a case in point.

The most important American military bases overseas - in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan - are those that have been the least troublesome politically. All three of these countries view the world much as we do and have stable political systems. Unfortunately, a good deal of strategic real estate is controlled, at least for the time being, by governments which have different world views and shakier political bases, which sometimes have larceny in their hearts, and which are altogether more distasteful.

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