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Marcos in US -- polishing image but risking tarnish

As Ferdinand E. Marcos visits the United States this week, he takes center stage in a theatrical spotlight that is sure to yield him mixed reviews.

True, the Washington spotlight will leave some of the Philippine President's image soiled. But there is little doubt the politically skillful Mr. Marcos will be very much in his element.

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Unlike many more self-effacing Asian leaders, who have ruled almost from behind the scenes, he has staked his career on projecting a public personality, not only in the Philippines, but also throughout Asia. Now, 18 years after his last American visit, he is scheduled to do the same thing in the US.

The American news media are likely to highlight expected demonstrations by human-rights activists and Filipino exiles, who accuse the Marcos government of authoritarianism, corruption, and human-rights abuses during the 10 years since martial law was declared.

Arrests of dissidents, such as recent detention of labor leaders, and allegations of army brutality in counterin-surgency campaigns have fueled human-rights protests both inside and outside the Philippines.

But the President surely anticipates this.

''He is extremely deliberate in nearly everything he does,'' notes an American journalist who has observed him closely.

''He is the smartest politician in the Philippines and that is what has put him ahead,'' notes another.

The US visit gives Marcos the stage to act the part of a true Filipino nationalist. In this role he can be a third-world leader who gains domestic approval by defying his country's former colonial ruler, the United States - even while receiving its support.

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One academic has named this approach for using the US to maintain power the ''double sanction'' tactic. Using the first ''sanction,'' Marcos raises his stature in the Philippines by demonstrating at home and abroad that he can keep American support.

The latest sign of his success is the Reagan administration's playing down of the human-rights issue to step up support for Marcos. In a June 1981 statement to the Filipino leader, for example, Vice-President George Bush said, ''We love your adherence to democratic principles. . . .''

Even during the Carter administration, which stressed human rights, Marcos kept basic American support. Under both administrations the US sought to maintain Philippine base rights at Subic and Clark in order to counter Soviet naval power in the Pacific.

Using the second ''sanction,'' Marcos projects a nationalistic willingness to defy the US. Thus he may encourage the Philippines media and others to spotlight disputes over the US base rights, including violent incidents between US servicemen and Filipinos.

By cordially prodding the Americans for concessions to ''help me get my people to accept the bases'' (as one American source put it), he can appear to his own people as a tough negotiator. Leaks publicized in the Manila press that Marcos will press for improvements in base agreements when he meets with American defense officials Sept. 18 dovetail with this strategy. Marcos is also expected to press for US trade concessions.

All this must be viewed against the broader background. In 1971 Marcos suspended his country's American-style Constitution in what he said was an effort to crack down on rampant crime and anarchic private armies so as to build the country's economy and gain independence from the US.

But rural poverty and a continuing Muslim rebellion on the southern island of Mindanao cast a shadow over the country. There is uncertainty over reports that Marcos' health is deteriorating. With the constitution removed, there is no widely accepted procedure for choosing a successor. There is continuing speculation that President Marcos' widely unpopular wife Imelda (now mayor of Manila) may seek to succeed him.

For the most part the Philippines today is a safer, more orderly place with an economic climate better than in 1971. But critics charge that, however sincere Marcos' original goals may be, his use of martial law to destroy the power of entrenched wealthy families has led him step by step to establish a new family rule of his own.

There is concern that the Marcos years have led to excesses in ''showcase development'' - such as public buildings and concert halls. Lacking has been the sustained agricultural reform and job-producing economic growth, pioneered by such nations as Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea.

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