The recent events in the Philippines create an agonizing dilemma for people who support democracy. The election held by President Ferdinand Marcos may not have been the most fraudulent election in the world, but it was nonetheless a rigged affair.
The natural ideological ally of the United States and the free world is Corazon (Cory) Aquino, leader of the opposition. Aquino is unquestionably a supporter of liberal democracy. But the tendency of the Western press to over-romanticize those opposing despots has unfortunately elevated Aquino to within spitting distance of beatification and ignored such trenchant drawbacks as the naïveté which caused her to state that she would permit Communists in her government, provided they renounced violence. But from a moral point of view, if one is a liberal democrat, there is no question that one must support Aquino.
In the past the Philippines has been a friend and firm ally of the United States. Without bases in the Philippines, the balance of power in the Pacific would be altered against the West. But Marcos is a tyrant. Aided by the spectacle of his corruption, the Communist New People’s Army is a growing force in the Philippines, with at least 12,000 well-trained insurgents. Why, then, is the United States reluctant to support Aquino? True, Aquino favors a plebiscite on whether to keep the bases, but this would likely go in favor of maintaining a U.S. presence.
The dilemma is this: if history teaches us anything, it is that to support Aquino is to assure delivering the Philippines into the hands of the Communists, which would mean a repressive regime worse than that of Marcos. It is the phenomenon described by Jean-François Revel in his book The Totalitarian Temptation, namely, that the formula for a successful nonmilitary coup by totalitarianism of the left or right is to find a country with a tottering dictatorship, followed by a period of short-lived, weak democracy, that can be taken over by Communists or Fascists.
This, of course, was how Hitler came to power. The absolute monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm was followed by the struggling Weimar Republic, which fell to the Third Reich. It is the story of Nicaragua, from the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza to the interim com-
mon front that included democrats Edén Pastora, Alfonso Robelo and the Roman Catholic Church, all exiled or persecuted and replaced by today’s Communist junta headed by Daniel Ortega. It is the story of Cuba as well.
In the case of the Philippines, while Aquino herself would undoubtedly strive for democracy, the result seems inevitable. Anyone with an understanding of history knows that by supporting Aquino, misguided and most likely ineffectual against totalitarians of the left, we would allow her country to end up in the hands of Communists—a worse tyranny than that of Marcos and one that would be hostile to the West. There are few exceptions in Africa or Asia to this sequence. So what should the United States do in situations like the Philippines? How can the West support a Marcos?
There are three options open to us. The first response is to say categori-
To support Corazon Aquino is to assure delivering the people of the Philippines into the hands of the Communists
cally that all tyrants will be our enemies. We are liberal democrats and would sooner give up our bases, sooner deliver a nation to what we know will eventually be a worse tyranny, than be a friend of any tyrant. The problem with this response is that we not only abandon people to totalitarians but we also imperil ourselves by permitting the spread of hostile regimes.
The second response is to say that we do not live in Utopia. We acknowledge that authoritarian tyrants are preferable to totalitarians. Authoritarian regimes, such as Chile or the Philippines, have an intrusive state and police presence, but they concede a whole range of private activities. Citizens don’t need permission to visit another city or to own a shop. Totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union or China, regulate every aspect of life. Further, we note that our tyrants are not only our geopolitical friends but they are better to the people they tyrannize than any of the alternatives. The Shah of Iran’s secret police did not begin to match the number of executions under the Ayatollah. Given the
choice between two evils, we will continue supporting friendly tyrants.
This second choice is the one the United States has more or less embraced. The problem with it is that the West has such ambivalence—rightly— about supporting authoritarian regimes which offend our concepts of liberty and human rights that we never give them sufficient support. We try to push reforms that inevitably undermine them—as with the Shah in Iran. In the end, these regimes cannot stand up by themselves and, as they fall, we are tainted with their misdeeds.
The third choice, which has never been tried, is to back supporters of liberal democracy in every country. Instead of giving half-hearted support to friendly tyrants, we give unequivocal military-backed warning that if any liberal democracy is threatened by a leftist (or rightist) tyrants, we will come down on it like a ton of bricks.
This means setting up the West as the moral police of the world. The problem with this is that it involves committing Western forces all over the globe. It means that we will have to tell our citizens that, while we will never ask them to put their lives on the line for a President Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam or a Marcos, we will expect them to save Aquino from a Communist takeover.
But this third choice entails one other consideration which, to me, is the most crucial of all. The problem with trying to establish liberal democracy in places like the Philippines or Iran is that it fails to take into account the fact that there are many political and cultural traditions in this world under which people may prefer to live rather than under democracy. Democracy is easily the best and most moral form of political organization, but it is a difficult form of government and requires stable institutions and homogeneous values. And even if our own people were willing to sacrifice their lives to establish democracy, we would have to ask the Iranians or Filipinos, who would bear the brunt of fighting, if it was worth it to them. It may not be. War is a horrible business.
This column has no answers. It seeks to do one thing: to suggest that before we castigate the United States for wavering over what to do in the Philippines, we understand the agony facing lawmakers. The alternatives are bleak: they require iron in our souls, and a choice between rivers of blood.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.