Prodding a reluctant Marcos toward reform

EVEN in a capital obsessed by summit preparation, the Philippines is looming as an unwelcome foreign policy crisis. The Philippines has a President, Ferdinand Marcos, who is a longtime friend of the United States. It has a population that has had long association with Americans and is generally friendly to them.

The Philippines is the only former colony of the US, and since it became independent in 1946, Washington has looked on the nation with fondness and pride. There is much two-way travel between the two countries, and the ties are many.

Why, then, the present mood of anxiety, and the concern that the Philippines might turn sour, departing the Western camp?

It is the classically unfortunate scenario: widespread poverty compounded by an ailing economy, a communist insurgency, and a high-living regime with an image of corruption and maladministration.

One of the American bequests to the Philippines has been a sturdy educational system. While that has been good in principle, it has meant that a very high proportion of college graduates has been turned loose in a market that could not absorb them. That has been a chronic problem. But the economy of the Philippines has been faltering, American investors have been given pause, and the happy-go-luckiness of the unemployed has been wearing thin.

Enter the New People's Army, a communist guerrilla operation that is now being taken seriously by Western, and particularly American, observers. Political lieutenants of President Marcos point out -- correctly -- that their country has survived a number of insurgencies over the years.

The difference now is that, whereas President Marcos as a young war hero captured the imagination of his people, his government now seems, to an increasing number of Filipinos, discredited and tarnished.

It is doubtful that most Filipinos are enthusiastic about Marxism. But they are disillusioned by Mr. Marcos, and the orthodox political opposition in the Philippines is fragmented, and so the concern is that lassitude and disappointment just might drift into giving the communists a shot at improving things in the Philippines.

The US is taking all this seriously enough to be doing some contingency planning in the event things go badly in the Philippines and it gets tossed out of its two big bases there -- the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base. But the cost of transplanting them would be very high, and alternative locations would not serve American interests as well. Meanwhile, just a naval stone's throw from the Philippines, the Soviets have turned Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay into a major Soviet naval base.

So perturbed has the Reagan administration become that it dispatched a friend of President Reagan's, Sen. Paul Laxalt, to Manila to underline to President Marcos American concern. That's diplomatic language for urging him to clean up his act. The significance of the Laxalt choice was that it signaled President Reagan's personal intervention. This was not simply those fussy fellows at the State Department tut-tutting about lack of reform in the political system and corruption and incompetence in the mili tary.

So far there is no indication that President Reagan's counsel has had much effect. Imelda Marcos, the Filipino President's wife, has been in New York for the United Nations General Assembly opening and has apparently been trying to steer away from the glitzy and big-spending image that usually surrounds a Marcos caravan. But in the Philippines, President Marcos seems publicly defiant and confident.

As Secretary of State George Shultz said the other day, speaking in general terms: ``If we use our power to push our nondemocratic allies too far and too fast, we may, in fact, destroy the hope for greater freedom.'' To see the commissars of the New People's Army running the Philippines from Manila's Malacaang Palace should fill nobody's heart with joy.

So what the Reagan administration would like to see is political reform, and an orderly succession. But if President Marcos refuses to heed the message, the alternative is increasing distance between himself and the present incumbent in the White House.

John Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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