Waltzing With the Dictator The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy By Raymond Bonner Times Books. 533 pp. $19.95

ONE WORD has propelled this book," the author tells us in a closing, explanatory note: "Why? . . . Why is it that the United States so often supports dictators?" Now, that's a big question and it was originally suggested to him that he address it with five examples: Batista in Cuba, Diem in South Vietnam, the shah of Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua and Marcos in the Philippines. Had he tackled this large assignment, Raymond Bonner, a specialist on Central America as a former New York Times correspondent, would have been obliged to grapple in a much more difficult -- and useful -- way with a fundamental question that has confounded the conduct of American foreign policy, precisely because of its bedeviling diversity, for much of this century.

Instead, alas, he has concentrated his impressive talent for research and reporting on just one case study, the theory apparently being that America's long, squalid affair with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos is all that's needed to make his point: "It's not a moral imperative which says don't embrace dictators; it is hard, cold realpolitik. If that wasn't clear before, it should be clear after Marcos."

Yet it is far from clear, even after you have been led painstakingly through the depressing, outraging and scandalous tale of intrigue, corruption, hypocrisy, expediency, opportunism, negligence -- you name it -- that characterized the performance of one side or the other (or both) over the past 15 years or more of the American waltz with the Marcoses. It is a gripping story and Bonner tells it in insightful detail. You get to know all the good guys and all the bad guys intimately. When it comes to judging character as well as performance, Bonner does not pussy-foot around, especially with the American players in this drama.

That makes it all the more surprising that in the end what you don't get to know is how come five successive American administrations (three Republican and two Democratic) of sharply differing ideological and philosophical persuasions could have been so uniformly dense about "hard, cold realpolitik." The reason you don't know is that Bonner does not really seem to know what to make of the fiasco of American policymaking in the Philippines over almost two decades, other than that it was a failure. By his own account, there has been a large component of what is commonly thought of as "realpolitik" -- far more than a "moral imperative" -- guiding U.S. policy in the Philippines for four decades depending, of course, on whether you accept the threat of communism and the strategic significance of Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base. Bonner insists that without benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there were powerful arguments made along the way that the bases were either replaceable or could have been more effectively preserved, without abandoning American democratic principles, by a much tougher line at any of a number of steps in America's long waltz with the Marcoses. Marcos, he contends, needed the bases, for economic reasons, more than we did.

His list of dissenting voices begins with George Kennan, who had played such a forceful role in the fashioning of the U.S. Cold War policy. "Immediate, complete, resolute and wordless withdrawal," was Kennan's prescription in 1977, when the Carter administration was confronted with outrageously inflated American compensation for a new base agreement. The Marcos regime had by that time become ever more rapacious and repressive and Kennan could no longer see a "serious need" for Clark and Subic: "Paying huge annual bribes as a form of hush money . . . it not a position in which the United States should ever choose to appear."

Perhaps so, but Kennan was not then in office and those who were, or had been over the years had a hard legacy to live with -- a legacy, ironically, that was left to them by George Kennan when he was George Marshall's director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff 30 years earlier. "It was George Kennan who set the course for American policy toward postindependence Philippines, an interventionist course that displayed little respect for Philippine sovereignty," Bonner notes at a much earlier point in his narrative. In 1947 Kennan was saying that American policy should be shaped to allow for Philippine independence "in all internal affairs but to preserve the archipelago as a bulwark of U.S. security" in the Pacific; "We will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming . . . we should cease to talk about vague and -- for the Far East -- unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization."

Surely that meets the test of "hard-cold realpolitik." The same may be said for the easy acquiescence of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to the imposition of martial law by Marcos in September 1972 -- an indifference that Bonner attributes to their unwillingness to get into a row "in the country where U.S. bases were being used" for an intensified U.S. war effort in Vietnam. If "the ultimate responsibility for allowing Marcos to become a dictator rests" with Nixon and Kissinger, the Carter administration comes under far harsher attack, for, on the one hand, resting its foreign policy so heavily on human rights and, on the other hand, not doing nearly as much as it should have to advance and protect human rights in the Philippines. MORE SO than in any other passages in this book, is the inherent conflict between principle and pragmatism brought into sharp focus in Bonner's play-by-play, blow-by-blow account of the bureaucratic infighting centering in the State Department between the Human Rights Bureau, and its gutsy, dedicated director, Pat Derian, and the assistant secretary with policy responsibility for the Philippines, Richard Holbrooke, an aggressive and accomplished operator. Leaving aside the gory details and the question of whether Bonner's account is fair to either of the combatants, the combat itself is a commentary on the Carter administration's own unresolved inner conflict. Obviously, Carter could not, or would not, practice in the Philippines what he preached worldwide. But neither does Bonner make a convincing case that there was, in Carter's time, any credible alternative to Marcos -- for all the damage that he was doing to his country -- that would not have put U.S. security interests at unacceptable risk.

Ronald Reagan comes off a bit better, if only because he made no pretenses. He openly defended the need for supporting dictators now and again, with scant concern for the cost to human rights, and snuggled ever closer to the Marcoses. Only in the sense that this may have encouraged Ferdinand and Imelda in their fatal, final excesses, up to and almost certainly including a hand in the murder of Benigno Aquino, can Reagan be credited with their dramatic downfall in 1986 and the beginning of the restoration of democracy in the Philippines.

Bonner argues quite rightly that indulging dictators in the name of anti-communism can play into the hands of the communists; that "by sticking with such dictators" as the shah or Somoza or Batista "for too long, the United States . . . virtually guaranteed the very outcome that it doesn't want." But that doesn't answer Bonner's question: Why does the U.S. support dictators in the first place? Still less does his revealing recital of our waltz with the Marcoses answer the question that has confronted a succession of newly-elected American presidents who found the United States locked in a strategic embrace with a dictator. The question then becomes: How do you apply the rule of "hard, cold realpolitik" that Bonner insists upon to the problem of breaking the embrace. To that question, this otherwise rewarding book does not offer a persuasive response. :: Philip Geyelin, a member of The Washington Post Writers Group, writes a column on foreign affairs.