Ever since the end of World War II the United States has had to face a problem that has turned out to be far more difficult than the containment of the Soviet Union: what to do with foreign leaders who claim to be friends and then put us in a tight spot.
These leaders declare an anti-communist stance, ask for American assistance, provide the United States with bases or international support, and yet alienate their own people and quite often radicalize their opposition through corruption or human-rights violations.
The case of Ferdinand E. Marcos comes after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran, the pro-Western regime in South Vietnam, Gen. Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and Gen. Chiang Kai-shek in China.
Whenever the opposition of the "friendly" tyrant was predominantly communist, the United States has supported him--with disastrous results in China and Vietnam. Whenever we believed that the opposition was radical but not, or not yet, dominated by the communists, we have tried to dissociate ourselves from our embarrassing and faltering ally at the last minute.
The result has been bitter domestic disputes when the new regimes proved hostile to the United States, as in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran, or Marxist-Leninist as in Fidel Castro's Cuba and the Sandinistas' Nicaragua.
Dissociation from the Duvalier regime in Haiti was made easy by the fact that the alternative did not appear to be a threat to American interests. The divorce from Marcos was a slow and painful process because of President Reagan's mistaken belief that Marcos was the only alternative to the communists.
But Reagan gave up his impartial stance and his absurd calls for compromise when it became obvious to Republicans in Congress that there was indeed a hugely popular democratic alternative, that further support of Marcos would only lead to a blood bath, and that, if Marcos did prevail, it would lead to a radicalization of the opposition.
The Administration now will try to take credit for the restoration of democracy in Manila and to link recent events in Haiti and the Philippines to the so-called Reagan doctrine of support for anti-communist movements in Angola, Nicaragua and Grenada. However, there is a world of difference between a somewhat grudging or at least belated intervention on behalf of democracy in the Philippines and the support of such extremely dubious "freedom fighters" as the contras and Jonas Savimbi. Moreover, future cases may not be as clear-cut as the David-and-Goliath-type battle between Corazon Aquino and Marcos.
The lesson that we should learn from the Philippines is that the real problem is not communist insurrection but the variety of factors that feed it. This fact is something that we ignored when we acquiesced in the violent replacement of President Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963, not so much because we deplored his way of ruling as that we thought it made him ineffectual in fighting communism.
The lesson that we ought to learn from the Filipino people is that prolonged support of leaders who violate what the United States stands for is always a mistake. Such support either makes it easier for the opposition to take a violently anti-American turn or, even when the outcome is as satisfying as in Manila, makes American proclamations of democratic virtue appear highly hypocritical. It also allows our own clients to blackmail us, as Marcos tried to do with the American bases in the Philippines.
I hope that one of the casualties of the peaceful Philippine revolution will be the neo-conservative defense of authoritarian as opposed to totalitarian regimes. Indeed, one of their arguments is that authoritarian regimes can be more easily changed than totalitarian ones. But it is grotesque to plead, in effect, for a U.S. commitment to authoritarian government just because in those countries (unlike in Poland or Czechoslovakia) there is no Red Army capable of crushing a popular rebellion.
If the only lesson that the Reagan Administration learns from the fall of Marcos is a lesson in dissociation when such a rebellion is on the verge of triumph, we will continue to support Gen. Augusto Pinochet's horrible regime and probably contribute to the reinforcement of the communists' position among the forces that oppose him. We also will fail to exert our considerable influence in Seoul to curb the authoritarian excesses of South Korea's military leadership.
If the lesson that the Administration learns from Manila is the possibility of abandoning an authoritarian regime only when the opposition is evidently moderate and pro-American, we will fail to insist that our more enlightened friends in El Salvador's government go through brave reform of the army and the social system--the only course that could split or weaken the rebellion.
We will also continue to resist exerting pressure on the South African regime even though its continued denial of basic citizenship and human rights to the vast majority of its population appears to leave no other outcome than a protracted civil war. The United States will appear on the side of the oppressors in such a conflict, and the Soviet Union will have a golden opportunity to champion the oppressed.
U.S. policy in all these cases should be to push for democratic reforms and repudiate such false friends when they refuse to budge in order to conserve their power.