Close Philippine election puts Washington in bind with few apparent options
The United States is now in a period of stick-and-carrot diplomacy with the Philippines. President Reagan continues to reaffirm that, for now at least, Washington is not ready to make any final judgments about the outcome or validity of last week's Philippine elections.
But by dispatching a new special US envoy to Manila, veteran diplomat Philip C. Habib, the President sends a strong signal of US concern to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos over mounting evidence of election fraud. The Habib mission also buys valuable time for Reagan officials to sort through the confusing election results and plot a future course for the US in the region.
In his press conference this week, Mr. Reagan deplored ``the violence that was evident there and the possibility of fraud.'' But he refused to implicate Mr. Marcos, implying that the opposition might have tampered with election results as well. The President also sidestepped questions about whether the US was prepared to accept a Marcos victory even in the face of demonstrable fraud, saying it is up to the ``Filipino people to make this decision.''
But despite the rhetorical neutrality, widespread reports of election irregularities in the Philippines, combined with the unexpected show of strength by opposition candidate Corazon Aquino, have left Reagan officials divided on how to respond to the election results.
Initially, Reagan officials played down news of election fraud, apparently indicating a willingness to accept a Marcos election despite victory claims by Mrs. Aquino.
As more details about election fraud continue to reach the US, it is becoming apparent that the appointment of Habib may have the same significance assigned to an earlier diplomatic mission led by presidential confidant Paul Laxalt, a Republican senator from Nevada. Last year Senator Laxalt delivered a blunt message of US displeasure to Marcos, warning that without speedy reforms the Marcos government was in danger of being overthrown. Many credit the Laxalt mission with Marcos's eventual decision to hold last week's snap elections.
So far, Reagan administration spokesmen have refused to comment on the exact purpose or timing of the Habib mission, saying only that the new envoy will talk to a ``broad spectrum'' of Philippine leaders to assess the situation and, perhaps, to help effect some kind of political compromise.
But just how compromise could be reached in the confusion that surrounds the disputed election remains unclear. Some diplomatic observers speculate that Habib may be asked to try to piece together some kind of coalition government, perhaps with Marcos as president and Salvador Laurel, Aquino's running mate, as vice-president. Others say Habib may be asked to pressure Marcos into calling new elections or instituting immediate military, political, and economic reforms as the price for future US support.
Whatever Habib's exact assignment, observers agree that he faces enormous obstacles. Securing the cooperation of an opposition that feels cheated of victory could prove impossible. Moreover, years of history suggest that even in the face of an election scare Marcos may remain unwilling to make the kind of sweeping reforms American officials have so long urged.
Equally tenuous is the hope that Habib's recommendations may narrow deep political divisions at home. Many Reagan officials believe there's no alternative to dealing with Marcos and sustaining US aid needed to fight Philippine communist insurgents. Others, including many in the State Department, fear that disillusionment with the election could lead to anti-US feelings that could eventually put US bases in the Philippines at risk.
``If the US is perceived to have failed the Philippines at this very critical time, [the Filipino people] may be less willing to have a long-term cooperative relationship with the US in the future,'' says a congressional source.
Known as one of the State Department's most seasoned and effective negotiators, Habib was also one of the department's most experienced Asia hands before he retired in 1983. During the Ford administration, Habib served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific and later as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the top-ranking job for career diplomats. For two years, he served as President Reagan's principal diplomatic troubleshooter in the Mideast.