WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration dispatched Deputy National Security Adviser Robert M. Gates to Manila on Wednesday after U.S. officials privately concluded that President Corazon Aquino's position is so fragile that she may not be able to survive in office through this year.
Officially, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters at a White House briefing that Gates' mission is "to convey to President Aquino President Bush's continuing strong commitment to democracy in the Philippines."
However, there were indications that Gates also has been given the job of warning Aquino of the need to make dramatic changes quickly. The sudden trip is reminiscent of those made in 1984 and 1985 by senior officials of the Reagan Administration, and by then-Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), in an effort to convey to President Ferdinand E. Marcos the high-level U.S. concern about events in the Philippines.
In addition, a pessimistic U.S. evaluation of Aquino's prospects--carried out in the wake of the nearly successful December coup attempt against her--says that the young military officers who spearheaded the last two coup attempts in the Philippines still pose a major threat and could topple Aquino before the end of 1990. The group is known informally as the "Academy of '71," because many of the officers graduated from military academy that year.
The U.S. analysis predicted that democratic government in the Philippines could give way to some form of authoritarian regime, along the lines of the one headed by Marcos. Salvador H. Laurel, Aquino's estranged vice president, could help provide the basis for such a regime, U.S. officials concluded.
One U.S. source familiar with the evaluation was critical of Aquino's leadership style. "Her tendency is not to engage either in confrontation or, unfortunately, in decisions," this official said. "She procrastinates on key issues." The source noted that there has been a narrowing of the group of advisers surrounding Aquino.
U.S. officials also are concerned that the New People's Army, the Philippine insurgent movement, seems to be taking advantage of divisions between Aquino and the Philippine armed forces. The NPA is said to be targeting more Americans and other high-profile personnel for assassinations because a terror campaign would dramatize Aquino's vulnerability.
Last month, during the early hours of the attempted coup against Aquino, President Bush authorized American F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers from Clark Air Base to pin rebel planes on the ground. Aquino had requested the help, and she also sought unsuccessfully to have U.S. planes bomb and strafe military targets in and around Manila.
The attempted coup came just as the United States and the Philippines were scheduled to begin negotiations on the future of Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base, two of the largest and most important American military facilities outside the United States. The talks were quickly postponed and are now scheduled to open in March or April.
In an interview with The Times on Wednesday, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Emmanuel Pelaez, said: "That there is a possibility of another attempted coup cannot be denied. But I don't think it can succeed. The circumstances of the last coup are no longer there."
Pelaez said the December coup was fueled by the death of Marcos last September, the sudden return to the Philippines of Marcos' wealthy friend, Eduardo Cojuangco and joint exercises between American and Philippine marines, which gave some Philippine marines special access to new weapons.
At the White House, Fitzwater said that the future of the U.S. military bases in the Philippines is not on the agenda for Gates' trip.
"This is on more general areas--her programs for rebuilding the economy and restructuring the government," he said, adding that the mission had been "in the planning for some time." Asked whether Gates would offer a "strong commitment" to the Aquino government, Fitzwater responded: "Absolutely, absolutely."
Regarding the stability of the Aquino regime, Fitzwater said: "Well, we, of course, very strongly support the Aquino regime. At the time of the coup attempt, you'll recall our efforts on behalf of her government. This trip is to make sure there is no question about that. There, of course, are continuing reports of problems in terms of security forces, and so forth. She is taking measures to deal with those, to prevent future coups, and we simply want to consult with her on those efforts."
Fitzwater made it clear that Aquino could expect continued U.S. military support in the event of another coup attempt. Responding to a question about whether Gates would pledge greater U.S. support in such a case, he said he could not speculate on specific actions, "but he certainly will be pledging our support and our continued policy support, and you know how we have responded in the past."
Gates is scheduled to meet with Aquino today and leave Manila on Friday, Fitzwater said.
Fitzwater said Bush initiated the trip and that Aquino had not requested the visit.
Gates led the committee of senior national security deputies in Washington during the coup attempt in December, when Bush flew to Malta to meet with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.