Each Administration since 1964 has been crippled by a major policy crisis that it could not overcome: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran. Now there is a looming foreign-policy disaster in the Philippines.
The United States has major interests at stake in the Philippines. It hosts the two largest U.S. overseas air and naval bases in the world, at Clark Field and Subic Bay. While defense experts differ on precisely how critical these facilities are, their loss would require billions of dollars to establish bases elsewhere. If Clark and Subic were to fall into Moscow's hands, almost overnight the Soviet Union would become the predominant military power in Southeast Asia.
More than security is at stake. The Philippines was this country's only true colony and the model for American democracy in Asia. A growing number of Filipinos live in the United States. There is a unique relationship between our two countries. Finally, the Philippines is a member of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, a grouping of non-communist countries with the highest economic growth rate of any region in the world.
Much has been said and written about the recent deterioration of conditions in the Philippines--the venality and ineptitude of President Ferdinand E. Marcos' regime, Marcos' failing health, the rapidly growing communist insurgency and the growing toll in human misery. The Philippines' presidential election, scheduled for Friday, has received extensive attention in the press and in Washington.
But there has been a near silence on what U.S. policy should be after Feb. 7. The reason is obvious: No one knows what to do. Present U.S. policy is to keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. The "best" would be a victory by the popular but unproven moderate opposition candidate, Corazon C. Aquino. A much more likely outcome is a Marcos "victory" through electoral fraud and intimidation on a grand scale. This will mean a further, perhaps fatal, rupture of the fabric of Philippine politics as moderates give up on democracy and the poor and the angry throw in their lot with the communist insurgents.
If Marcos stays in power, what should the United States do?
We have, I believe, two broad choices. We can stick with the Administration's policy of formal economic, political and military support for the regime while exerting public and private pressures for serious reform. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the Administration and Congress, this policy of pressure has yet to work. It has failed because Marcos rightly views reforms as the death knell for his regime, and has refused to make them.
Heavy U.S. pressure for reforms involves an overt interference in domestic affairs of another nation, which usually generates a hostile nationalistic reaction. The American track record in trying to exert influence of this kind does not inspire confidence--particularly if the target is a master politician like Marcos.
Meanwhile, the insurgency grows, and the Administration has proposed increased assistance to the Philippine armed forces. The logical outcome of this course would be the introduction of U.S. troops as Manila's counterinsurgency effort sags. First the Marines will come to protect the bases, and eventually the Army and Air Force will be conducting counterinsurgency operations throughout the country. We have been down that road before.
A second option involves systematic disengagement to reduce U.S. involvement in a no-win situation. This would require openly breaking with Marcos and cutting back U.S. aid, particularly to the military, which many Filipinos associate with human-rights abuses. Economic aid could be redirected, where possible, through international agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, thereby minimizing opportunities for misuse by the regime.
We would maintain a diplomatic presence to keep whatever ties we can with the non-communist opposition to Marcos and remain as knowledgeable as possible. We would proceed with alternatives to Clark and Subic. The objective would be to reduce U.S. exposure if the insurgency triumphs.
If, contrary to all expectations, Marcos embraces serious reforms, or if his regime is replaced by a non-communist leadership, the United States could reinstitute its economic and military assistance programs on a major scale.
This is not a very satisfying policy option, but it is the best available. It cannot promise success. But it accepts the hard truth that our capacity to shape events in other countries--even a former colony--is severely limited. It recognizes that America can help the regenerative forces in the Philippines, but it cannot create or replace them.
The Roman Catholic church, a cadre of professional and reform-minded military officers, a sophisticated middle class and a literate citizenry devoted to democratic values and friendship with the United States do offer hope and a real basis for a non-communist future in the Philippines. But these are wasting assets. In the absence of a government in Manila seriously committed to reforms, they will mean little more than an opportunity lost.