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Playing Hard-to-Get With Manila : Congress Could Delay Aid Until a New Government Forms

February 13, 1986|RICHARD C. HOLBROOKE | Richard C. Holbrooke was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1977 to 1981.

Let's say that you are a member of Congress. Let's say further that you wish to influence, through your voice and vote, the conduct of American foreign policy in a "responsible and constructive" way. Let's also specify, for the sake of argument, that you believe that the Philippines are very important to American strategic and political interests in the Pacific, but you have also come to the conclusion that Ferdinand Marcos has just won the election there through wholesale robbery.

What do you do next?

This is the dilemma that responsible members of Congress are likely to face in the next few weeks as they are asked to vote on military and economic aid appropriations amid an atmosphere of rising tension in the Philippines. But in the world of Congress, decisions of this sort are not made in a vacuum. What the Congress does depends in part on what the Administration pushes and how hard it pushes. And in the final analysis the outcome of the drama now unfolding in the Philippines will be decided in Manila, not Washington.

Of course, if you give in to easy symbolism, it is not difficult to decide how to vote. An ideological conservative can say that Marcos "may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch," and vote for the whole aid package that the Administration is obligated to seek under the revision of the military base agreement with the Philippines. This amount, $224.5 million in economic and military aid, is what the U.S. government committed itself to request "on a best-faith effort" from Congress in exchange for continued use of our bases in the Philippines. Or, if you are more liberal, you may be tempted to vote against all or most of the aid appropriation to demonstrate to the people of the Philippines that Congress is not supporting Marcos, even if the Administration still is.

I have heard both these positions argued vehemently in recent days. No doubt, each approach offers some satisfaction. People are driven more by ideology or self-indulgence than by concern with the practical consequences of their acts. But legislative acts have real as well as symbolic consequences. Legislators must try to gauge the effect of their vote not only on constituents back home, but in this case the effect in the Philippines, too. Here the dilemma is acute.

With a wrecked economy and a growing communist guerrilla threat, the Philippines has become the sick man of East Asia, a marked contrast to its non-communist neighbors. As long as Marcos remains in power, the chances of the economy recovering and the tide being turned against the communists are very slim.

Not that his departure solves these problems: When Marcos finally does leave, which given his failing health and other pressures seems likely to happen in the not-to-distant future, his successors will face a formidable set of problems.

So how should you vote? Cut the aid substantially and perhaps contribute to more chaos? Or vote for the aid and perhaps prolong an increasingly ineffective and corrupt government's days in power?

In this case as in many similar legislative dilemmas, a compromise may be the best way to proceed. My suggestion is to authorize the full amount requested, but with two important provisos:

None of it should go to the Ministry of Human Settlements, which was created by, and solely for, the aggrandizement of Imelda Marcos and is a personal political machine. Much of the American economic support money in recent years has been channeled through her ministry. Even if some of it has gone for socially useful projects such as rural schools, the fact remains that she uses the money to enhance her personal political position.

If Congress wants to make some cuts in the aid request, it should set aside in a special escrow account in whatever amount is trimmed, to be released to the Philippine government whenever it is reconstituted in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the majority of the Philippine people. The certification for the release of these funds could be done upon the recommendation of the President and the concurrent majority vote of both houses of Congress.

These suggestions carry some risks. But Marcos has not shown an ability for using our aid to turn around either the economy or the insurgency; therefore it should be withheld until it can be used effectively--and as a way of letting the Philippine people know where America stands.

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