"Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play cards with a man called Doc, and never make love to a woman crazier than you are." So goes an old American adage on some of the eternal verities. One of those verities is about to be changed, though. I, for one, would never play cards with a man called Ron.
Doc Reagan has done it again. After figuratively putting an arm around the shoulder of Ferdinand Marcos, dispatching his vice president to slobber a toast to nonexistent Filipino democracy, suggesting the opposition and the government were equally to blame for fraud and violence and then -- tick, tick, how the clock doth tick -- waiting until only he and Marcos shared the same vision of the future, things turned out splendidly. When the president turned over his cards, there was Corazon Aquino, mellow in yellow, smiling up at him. He had won again.
In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Mandelbaum writes about "The Luck of the President." Mandelbaum counts the ways. Soviet leaders kept dying, making it hard -- or harder -- for America's chief adversary to be creatively adversarial. The president came into office campaigning against the SALT II treaty, and then, lo and behold, realized that it was a good thing after all. It is a lucky thing to discover the uses of something you were once willing to throw out.
In the Middle East the president's peace initiatives have been spectacular failures, but it hardly matters. The Israelis and the Arabs make no war anyway. The price of oil, once sky-high, fell during Reagan's tenure and, more recently, has plummeted. For Reagan there is effect but no cause. He had nothing to do with it. Even the administration's recent attempt to cheat on the Israelis by flirting with the PLO created nothing like the firestorm produced when Andrew Young attempted something similar. The Israelis are bitter, but they have decided to hold their tongue.
The Philippines, though, shows Reagan at his sheer luckiest. In the truest sense, he personally had no policy, unless it was the wish that Marcos somehow pull through. Despite the kudos that he is now receiving for a job well done, the fact is that for too long he did next to nothing. The bloodshed that accompanied the elections might itself have been avoided had Reagan and the United States not suggested to Marcos over the years that he could, literally, get away with murder. He took the United States at its word.
The Philippines crisis did produce some genuine heroes -- if that is the right word. One is Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who had to tell the president the facts of life. Another, sort of, was the Pentagon, which warned that there would be no comfy California exile for Filipino army officers whose troops caused bloodshed. But the truest heroes were Filipinos themselves -- the people, the Catholic church, its prelate and, of course, all those people for whom democracy is not a slogan but a conviction. It is doubtful today that they would give our president the sort of hero's welcome he got in Grenada.
In the Reagan imagination, the foe can be a wishy-washy figure, a kind of latter-day Gandhi, whose dreamy but misguided efforts are always doomed to failure in the cruel world beyond Beverly Hills. If you had to draw such a person, she would look like Cory Aquino, a breeze of a figure who makes St. Joan seem an apostle of Realpolitik. Nevertheless, she sits today in the president's chair, a repudiation of the president's world view, an asterisk to the writings of Jeane Kirkpatrick. Reagan was wrong, Aquino was right, but he wins anyway.
The president of the United States, unlike the former president of the Philippines, is a realist. In the end he did what he had to do, and Marcos went the way of loyalty to Taiwan and constructive engagement for South Africa. I suppose others might have lashed themselves to the mast with their ideology and gone down with the ship. When the United States finally did move, it moved deftly, showing the world what the term "great power" means. An elbow from Uncle Sam is all it took.
One thesis of the Mandelbaum article is that Reagan's luck, while formidable, does not fully account for his foreign policy success. His luck could be the fruit of wise policies. Maybe. But in the Philippines, he initially played all the wrong cards, won anyway and now his critics and Marcos eat at the same place. It's called Mom's.