The U.S. government, after months of surprising unanimity in pressuring Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to reform, finds itself increasingly divided over what actions -- including proposed cuts in military aid to the Philippines -- are needed to give bite to the American bark.
The policy dilemma came to a head this week with the reinstatement Monday of Gen. Fabian Ver as chief of the Philippine armed forces and a subsequent move by the House to cut the administration's $100 million request for military aid to Manila to $25 million.
Ver and 24 other military men were acquitted of involvement in the 1983 murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., despite considerable evidence of their complicity. The return of Ver, a Marcos confidant, to his post at the head of the Philippine military appeared to dash U.S. hopes for serious reforms and further strained Marcos' relations with the United States.
The policy test now confronting the Reagan administration appears to foreshadow a more serious battle if Marcos wins the Feb. 7 presidential election. Many officials here think that a reelected Marcos could make things uncomfortable for the White House by demanding continued U.S. support as compensation for his heeding Washington's request for Philippine elections.
In the past year, there has been a remarkable consensus in the administration and Congress about pressuring Marcos with tough public rhetoric and private presidential emissaries, including Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), to make economic and political reforms. His Nov. 3 decision to hold a presidential election appeared to be in response to this pressure.
But there are signs that this consensus is about to unravel over the issue of whether the United States should use its considerable economic and military aid as leverage.
The Defense Department opposes such a course as being contrary to American interests in retarding the spreading Philippine communist insurgency.
The Senate next week is likely to approve $70 million of the administration's $100 million military aid request. Because the House this week slashed the request by 75 percent, a House-Senate conference will seek a compromise. It seems certain that the final figure will be far less than the original administration request and an immediate bone of contention between Manila and Washington.
In Manila yesterday, Marcos assured U.S. officials that a reorganization in the Philippine armed forces will reach Ver and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, "after about a week," special correspondent Abby Tan reported from Manila.
Marcos relayed the information to Adm. Donald Hays, commander-in-chief of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, and U.S. Embassy charge d'affaires Philip Kaplan, according to a statement from the presidential palace.
There were no further details on the military reorganization. Marcos and Ver are currently reorganizing the military to improve its effectiveness in fighting the communists. Immediately after his reinstatement, Ver began a high-level shakeup in five army and navy commands.
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Asia subcommittee who originally proposed the aid cut to $25 million, said he thinks that such punitive action is demanded by Ver's reinstatement and an unpublished General Accounting Office report concluding that the Marcos government wasted over $100 million in U.S. military aid.
The U.S. dilemma is complicated not only by the communist insurgency in the Philippines but also by the importance to the Pentagon of Clark Air Field and Subic Bay Naval Base, the two largest U.S. defense installations abroad.
Assistant Defense Secretary Richard L. Armitage told a House committee on Nov. 12 that there were "tragic flaws" in using U.S. security assistance as leverage to force military reform. "There can be no doubt that the outcome of an aid reduction, or its elimination, would decrease our influence within the Philippine military establishment and severely limit" Manila's ability to fight the rebels, he said.
In addition to a $900 million, five-year economic and military aid package tied to the U.S.-Philippine base agreement, Washington this year is providing $38 million in development assistance and $50 million in food aid to the Philippines.
An Oct. 31 Senate staff report cited Ver as an example of the conundrum facing Washington. Ver, it said, is a strong anticommunist "who sees himself as a proven friend of the United States."
But he has also been Marcos' "major instrument" in politicizing the Philippine armed forces and making "loyalty to the president rather than professional competence" the criteria for promotion, the report said.
Administration officials refrained this week from suggesting that the administration is rethinking its aid program as an expression of dissatisfaction at Ver's reinstatement. Instead, they have spoken of "exchanging views" with leaders of Congress about what the United States should do.
"They don't know where to go next," said one congressional source, who acknowledged that Congress also is perplexed.
"There isn't any easy answer," said an aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "People are angry but not sure what to do. We don't want to cut off our noses to spite our faces."
Republicans generally are wary of withholding aid. Even some Democratic critics of Marcos, while unhappy that the administration has not more stridently denounced Ver's reinstatement, seem uncertain whether now is the right time to press for a showdown with Marcos.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has urged linking U.S. aid to reform, said this week that Congress should "consider withholding some portion" of the program. But he added that any final action should await a clearer indication of Marcos' intentions regarding Ver, among other issues