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Perhaps the Philippine Bases Aren't So Critical After All

December 27, 1985|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies

When Rudyard Kipling penned his imperialist line, "Take up the white man's burden," he was not referring to the British Raj. He was admonishing his American cousins to seize the Philippines and become a colonial power. That legacy colors U.S. debate on what to do about President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Too often the legacy impedes analysis of our interests.

As Marcos' domestic problems have deepened, U.S. attitudes have split many ways. On his visit to Manila, Vice President George Bush praised Marcos as a democrat. Others further to the right urge us to ignore Marcos' peccadilloes in order to support a firm friend of America. He has the leverage, the logic goes. We would be foolish to ignore it in the name of democratic principles that we apply unevenly around the world.

By the other side, Marcos is excoriated as one of the world's most venal dictators. His wife, Imelda, is cast as the Dragon Lady. Some people thus see the presidential elections that Marcos has called for in February as destined to be a fraud; others see them as the Philippines' necessary submission to the forms of Western democracy.

Often lost in this Americanization of the Filipino "problem" is sufficient thought about the question, "So what?" The most common answer is couched in strategic terms. The United States has the use of one of the world's finest ports at Subic Bay, along with Clark Air Base, near Manila. Most Americans who do not see the Philippines question as a tussle between good and evil agree on one point: The United States must retain those bases. To different observers, the securing of this goal means either supporting Marcos without limit or hastening his departure in hopes that his successors will reward us with the status quo.

The importance of the bases seems self-evident. Many Americans fail to comprehend the vastness of the Pacific. Without the Subic Bay installation, major units of the U.S. 7th Fleet might have to fall back onto Pearl Harbor, one-fifth of the globe away. The United States has important interests in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, along with valued allies in East Asia. Without the Philippine bases, the projection of either air or sea power would be more costly and, to a degree, less certain.

Yet we also must ask: "Power to what end?" The answer to this question is not self-evident. Certainly the Soviet Union has been increasing its Pacific Fleet and now has access to Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay. But in the absence of opportunities for the Soviets to project this sea power on land, its direct military benefits are far from obvious.

Political benefit is the issue. It is often argued that the United States' loss of the Philippine bases would provide Moscow with decisive political advantage in the region. But this point implies that, by the same token, U.S. influence and position in the Far East have depended on the presence and effectiveness of U.S. military power. That is only partly true in a region where "security" has more of an economic than a military character, where the internal health of societies has proved to be the best defense. Indeed, we lost a war in the region, yet we still en joy political and economic advantages that are unmatched by any other nation.

It is tempting to translate experience from one region to another. In Europe the United States and its allies must confront the Warsaw Pact nations with ground forces along a land frontier. In East Asia, by contrast, there is no such intersection of Soviet and U.S. power or of critical allied territories--save for South Korea, whose protection does not depend on the Philippine bases.

Similarly, the United States' political, economic and naval presence in the Western Pacific does not evoke among Far East neutrals the ambivalence or hostility that has often plagued American policy from North Africa to Southwest Asia. With a change in regime in Manila, the United States could be evicted from Subic Bay and Clark Air Base, but this would not provoke a regional chorus of "Yankee go home."

Alternative bases with the majesty of those in the Philippines might not readily be found. But some basing elsewhere, such as in Singapore for the Western Pacific and in Australia for the Indian Ocean, should be possible. The Philippines' regional neighbors would also likely counsel new rulers against assuming a pristine stance against U.S. bases.

Thus many Far East countries do see merit in the U.S. military presence. But it is power that is viewed far more as insurance than for use. It is adjunct to healthy U.S. political and economic involvement, more symbol than substance. In a valid parallel, U.S. forces in Europe help assure that Germany will be peaceful. So, too, the U.S. presence in the Far East is widely seen as forestalling a Japanese alternative.

No doubt long-term U.S. strategic and political interests in the Western Pacific and the Indian oceans will be more easily advanced if we retain the Philippine bases. Our friends and allies will rest more peacefully. Yet we must not be mesmerized by the military factor. If we are, we will provide leverage to others as we debate what, if anything, to do about Ferdinand Marcos.

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