America's Tripwire In the Philippines

ALTHOUGH the latest military revolt against President Corazon Aquino failed, it came dangerously close to success. Rebel forces occupied military and communications installations in and around Manila, and, unlike during the last coup attempt in August 1987, they seized initial control of the skies. Worse, some government forces were hesitant to respond. It was not until President Bush ordered US warplanes from Clark Air Base to patrol Manila's skies, the effect of which was to ground rebel aircraft, that the tide of battle finally turned. The revolt signifies continuing problems for the Philippines and for US-Philippine relations. For Mrs. Aquino, the lessons are particularly bitter. After the 1987 rebellion, Aquino made significant concessions to the military. Among these were the removal of cabinet members thought by the armed forces to be leftists, and a greater emphasis on a military solution to the long running communist insurgency.

Despite these concessions and ongoing attempts by Manila to ``reform'' the military, assumptions of stability and reform disappeared in the smoke of the first rebel volley. The problem Aquino faces is pervasive and dates back to the stunning growth and politicization of the armed forces during the tenure of her discredited predecessor, Ferdinand Marcos. In exchange for the military's support, Mr. Marcos corrupted the armed forces by granting them primacy over civilian affairs.

In 1986, when Aquino, supported by ``reformist'' elements of the armed forces, toppled Marcos, many soldiers could not accept democracy's return and its corollary, a reduced role for the military. Although rebel contentions are correct - Aquino has been ineffective in eliminating government corruption and widespread poverty - the real rebel motive is to regain the political power accrued under Marcos.

Given the rebel goal, it is clear that further concessions, as occurred in 1987, will not bring stability. Any further concession will likely be perceived as weakness on the part of the government and lay the groundwork for the next rebellion. Aquino's sole hope for survival is to severely punish surviving rebels, including civilian supporters, and to purge from the military all who harbor rebel sentiments.

Although such a hard-line approach runs certain risks, including further military revolts, it is essential if the Philippines is to have any long-term hope of stability. In both immediate task and distant goal, Aquino can count on US support, as was demonstrated during the rebellion.

However, for the United States, with large military facilities in the Philippines, such support carries risks. During the Marcos years, a criticism of US policy in the Philippines was that American personnel and installations constituted targets for the communists, and a tripwire for US involvement in fighting the insurgency. As demonstrated during this last rebellion, the tripwire now includes threats to the Aquino government from its own military.

While President Bush's decision to scramble US jets was correct, this response must be the rare exception rather than the rule regarding US policy in the Philippines. The core of the tripwire criticism against American bases in the Philippines is that key defense installations should not be located in politically unstable settings. In addition to renegade soldiers and a communist insurgency, the government faces a Muslim secession movement in the southern Philippines. Hopes for a peaceful solution to the Muslim question dimmed last month when voters in the south rejected an autonomy proposal.

If the rebels had won in this latest challenge to Aquino's authority, the US would have faced three unsatisfactory alternatives: to endorse an illegal government to save the bases, to abandon the bases despite a significant Soviet military presence in Vietnam, or to not recognize the new government and retain the bases by force.

It is precisely this type of dilemma that US policy should seek to avoid. The first step should be the gradual dismantling of US bases in the Philippines. This month preliminary talks between Philippine and US representatives are scheduled to start regarding the future of the bases beyond 1991, when the current treaty expires.

A future treaty must be for a limited duration, time within which to negotiate with the Soviets and others a phased withdrawal of foreign military bases from the region. Such a period would also provide the Philippines a period of grace to adjust its economy away from the enormous sums of US aid generated by the bases.

For the US, such an approach reduces the danger that its presence constitutes a tripwire to military involvement. Continuing Philippine instability means that this danger is real and that US actions may be governed not by policy, but by unpredictable circumstances.

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