US and Philippines: what next?

IT is time to give long, hard thought to United States policy in the Philippines. President Marcos has enjoyed US support since he first came to power in 1966. And why not? He sent Filipino troops to fight on our side in Vietnam. (We paid their expenses, and probably more.) He has allowed the continued use of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, the major American military installations west of Hawaii. (We are paying handsomely for them, too.)

Now Marcos is older, reported to be ill, and politically shaky. He is widely disliked, mainly because of his heavy-handed rule and his government's corruption. His troubles are compounded by a dismal economy.

The opposition to Marcos covers a broad range of the political spectrum -- among other groups, business, the Roman Catholic Church, and communists. The communists are prominent in a growing rural insurgency.

The problem for US policy is the nature of the regime which succeeds Marcos and how the US adjusts to it.

This is a classic example of a dilemma which has bedeviled US foreign policy in country after country since World War II. We are on good terms with a ruler who protects American interests, military or economic or both, in his country. The ruler is overthrown. The people who overthrow him don't like the US, in part because the US has been too closely identified with him. American interests go down the drain. Is there a way to give this scenario a happier ending?

Some people, generally conservatives, argue that if we supported the ruler more vigorously (for example, the Shah in Iran or Somoza in Nicaragua), he would not be overthrown and we could continue to enjoy the status quo. Others, generally liberals, argue that if we had not been so close to the ruler in the first place, we could get along better with the people who threw him out.

Both arguments overlook some of the awkward facts that practitioners of foreign policy have to deal with. To go back to the case of the Philippines: Clark and Subic are important -- some would say essential -- to US national security. They represent an enormous investment. American forces can use them only by sufferance of the Philippine government. We have therefore perforce had to deal with whatever government has been in power, and since 1966 this has been Ferdinand Marcos.

It is characteristic of third-world rulers in Marcos's position that they try to bring the US into a closer association with them. They view this as a kind of protective cover. It also opens the way to more American foreign aid and political support. In a good many cases, this gambit had worked in the sense that it has at least postponed, if it has not avoided, revolution.

The trouble is that it has made the revolution, when it came, more radical, more violent, and more destructive of American interests than it might have been otherwise. There may be no way to avoid this, but there ought to be ways to make it less painful.

The United States typically is too eager to lock itself into the embrace of a ruler who has something we want. Marcos is a case in point. But we have some things he has wanted, too -- foreign aid, sugar quotas, and commercial credits, among others. In the Philippine case, it may already be too late to start dissociating ourselves, but next week will be later than this week.

Americans generally are uncomfortable with radical change, especially when communists are part of it, and American governments have generally not been very skillful in dealing with it. We could probably deal with it better if we got used to the idea that it is happening, and is likely to continue to happen, in much of the world.

In situations like that in the Philippines, US policy has tried to find a moderate force which it could support -- something between the dictator on his way out and the revolutionaries on their way in. This has not often worked; it failed in Cuba and Nicaragua, among other places. Notwithstanding, the US would probably be better off in the Philippines if it were publicly closer to the Catholic Church and the followers of the assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino than to Marcos.

None of this deals with the hard question of the insurgency in the countryside. The insurgents are violent. They kill people. They destroy property. Such behavior can perhaps be understood, but it cannot be accepted. Yet controlling it requires force, and force means armies and police, and supporting them means supporting the unpopular government of which they are agents.

There may be no way out of this catch-22. That is why somebody in the State Department and the National Security Council had better be thinking about it. And somebody in the Pentagon had better be looking for alternative sites, if there are any, for Clark and Subic. Or planning how to get along without them.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

QR Code to US and Philippines: what next?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today