In many respects, the crisis in the Philippines is a classic story of a Third World leader who amassed too much power and kept it too long, and of a U.S. administration's difficulties in dealing with such a leader's declining power without undermining him or endangering its own important interests.
Ironically, the bedeviling problems that beset President Ferdinand Marcos this month were foreseen clearly in a secret National Security Council paper written in November 1984 to summarize a lengthy review of U.S. policy:
"Reforms are likely in the short run to weaken some bases of support for the current government, which will resist many of them," the study said. "While President Marcos at this stage is part of the problem, he is also necessarily part of the solution. We need to be able to work with him and to try to influence him through a well-orchestrated policy of incentives and disincentives to set the stage for peaceful and eventual transition to a successor government whenever that takes place. Marcos, for his part, will try to use us to remain in power indefinitely."
The hint of optimism in that study that a solution to the Philippine problem could be found was undermined by events. One predated the NSC study -- the assassination of Benigno Aquino at Manila International Airport in August 1983, which proved to be an impetus to the creation of a strong, united and determined Philippine opposition to Marcos. Then last November, Marcos' poorly considered decision to test his popularity in an unscheduled national election led directly to the turmoil that continues in Manila today.
The Philippines is among the nations where the United States has truly vital interests, including two massive military bases that are the fulcrum of U.S. naval and air power from the Pacific to the Arabian Sea. It is also among the nations where the United States has greatest influence because of the close historical, personal, economic and political ties forged when America was Manila's colonial master and nourished after Philippine independence four decades ago.
A serious threat to Philippine stability and to long-term U.S. interests was evident to close observers years before the assassin's bullets killed Aquino -- Marcos' longest-standing and most formidable political rival -- on Aug. 21, 1983. Until then, however, there was no alarm at top levels in Washington about the growing corruption and ineffectiveness of the Marcos regime and the slowly rising fortunes of the New People's Army, a communist insurgency.
The dramatic killing of Aquino as he stepped off an airliner on his return from exile in the United States generated a powerful wave of emotion against the Marcos regime, which was held responsible for the killing by an independent investigating commission and by Philippine public opinion. The shock wave in the Philippines transformed the weak and divided opposition to Marcos into a formidable political force, ultimately headed by the well-spoken but inexperienced widow of the slain leader, Corazon Aquino.
In the wake of the assassination, the "back-burner" problem of the Philippines was suddenly catapulted to the top of Washington's agenda. President Reagan canceled a planned trip to Manila, an action that was the first breach in the cordial relations between the two governments. More importantly, Washington began to devise and implement a policy of pressing for political, economic and military reforms on the part of the Marcos government.
As that 1984 NSC document indicated, U.S. officials were aware that their demand for reforms would bring growing conflict with Marcos, who had created the existing power structures in order to protect and advance his influence.
Throughout 1985, the Reagan administration pressed Marcos to open the political system to the opposition, to dismantle "crony capitalism" and other policies standing in the way of economic growth and to replace "overstaying generals" who held their jobs through favoritism with younger, more effective leaders in the battle against the NPA. In all this, the administration was prodded by members of Congress demanding stronger and more open pressures against the Marcos regime.
Marcos, by administration accounts, was feeling strong U.S. pressure, especially after Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) was sent to Manila last October to deliver a strong message of concern in his capacity as a personal and political friend of President Reagan. Among other things, Laxalt pushed Marcos to go through with planned municipal elections this May, and presidential elections in 1987.
Last Nov. 3 the Philippine leader, in a maneuver apparently taken with only minimal consultation among his political advisers, surprised his electorate and the U.S. administration by announcing a quick presidential election in early 1986, more than a year before his current term of office was to be over.
In a sign of the importance Marcos attached to U.S. public and official opinion -- and a portent of saturation coverage to come in the news media -- the Philippine president made the announcement of his decision on an American television news program, ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."
"Marcos called the snap election essentially to deflect our pressure," a senior U.S. policymaker said recently. "I think his idea was that if he could get an election with a credible mandate right away, he could tell us to buzz off."
Marcos apparently calculated that a presidential election in January (as originally planned) or even early February (when it was finally conducted) would leave his divided opposition insufficient time to unify or organize sufficiently to seriously contest his candidacy. But his two most formidable rivals, Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel, reached agreement on a unified opposition ticket with Aquino at its head only an hour before the filing deadline for the presidential race last Dec. 11.
From the beginning, Marcos was determined to have U.S. observers on the scene to validate his victory. Formal appeals for such observers were considered warily by the Reagan administration and members of Congress, who expected Marcos to win by hook or by crook and feared having to give a U.S. blessing to something less than a fair election. In an unusual team effort, the administration and leading lawmakers pushed for election safeguards as a precondition to any agreement to send American observers.
U.S. policymakers recognized early on that a blatently stolen election could produce powerful adverse reactions in the Philippines and elsewhere. This "worst-case scenario," as it came to be known, was outlined in a Portland, Ore., speech last Dec. 6 by Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost, who had served as U.S. ambassador to the Philippines before returning home in 1984 to become the No. 3 official at the State Department and a chief architect of U.S. policy toward that Pacific ally.
"We can confidently expect to work effectively with any government produced by an election which Filipinos consider to have been fair and honest," Armacost declared. But then he summoned up the spectre of another possible result, which turned out to be closer to the eventual outcome:
"If the elections are rigged or the rules stacked, this will surely increase political cynicism, further polarize the country, demoralize the forces of moderation, accelerate NPA growth and deprive whomever wins of the domestic legitimacy and the international support necessary to revive the economy and combat the insurgency."
Neither Marcos nor the State Department planners -- nor anybody else -- foresaw the full intensity of the U.S. public and congressional reaction to a blatantly fraudulent presidential election. Due to saturation coverage by the American press and televison, Marcos in his white suits and Aquino in her yellow dresses became familiar figures to the U.S. public in a televised morality play involving the sanctity of elections.
When Reagan in a news conference Feb. 11 said there was fraud "on both sides" in the Philippine election, he generated a domestic political firestorm that forced his adminstration four days later to condemn the election as a fraudulent exercise on the part of the Marcos forces and move U.S. policy increasingly to the side of Marcos' opposition.
The results of these twists of policy and fate were being played out in the past few hours in the streets of Manila.