The Philippines: The Bases Dilemma

The leases on our two largest overseas military installations will be up soon, and whether we should keep or quit them is not at all clear

FILIPINOS WILL SPEND a lot of time in the next three years deciding whether American military bases should remain in their country. Since the day Corazon Aquino took office, everyone has recognized that this is the biggest foreign-policy choice her Administration will make. Assuming she serves her full term, Aquino will be in office until 1992. The Military Bases Agreement, under which the United States has stationed soldiers and sailors in the Philippines since just after the Second World War, is scheduled to expire in 1991.

Americans might well start asking themselves the same thing: whether it makes sense to leave the bases where they are. The answer might seem to be obvious. Of course we should keep bases that are so conveniently located and would be so costly and bothersome to replace. Most Filipinos—in fact, every one I’ve discussed the matter with— seem to take it for granted that the United States must have the bases. They assume that America will scratch, claw, browbeat, and bribe to protect the bases, as it has done when necessary in the past. Because of the way they interpret our intentions, many Filipinos are quite brave to dare yell “Yankee go home.” Others are merely bluffing, using their one bargaining chip in hopes of getting more money when the bases agreement is renewed.

It seems to me that America’s interest in the bases deserves harder thought than most Filipinos believe we’ll give it. Rather than as an open-and-shut case, I think, it should be seen as another in the series of depressing dilemmas the United States faces, now that its military commitments stretch so much further than does the money to back them up. I use dilemma not as a mushy foreign-relations term but in its strict sense, to describe a situation in which we have two bad choices.

The most painful of these dilemmas arises, of course, from Japan’s “free ride” on the American defense budget. The current division of labor between the countries seems ruinous for America. We sink a large share of our dwindling wealth into the military, partly to protect Japan, while Japan, which sinks very little, pulls further and further ahead in technology and financial strength. Apart from the vague satisfaction of protecting Asian nations from each other and from the Russians, the United States gets little or no benefit from this service. It—s like patrolling the Persian Gulf, on a much more expensive and isolated scale. But it’s a very difficult job to quit. Western Europe is made of stable, rich, democratic countries joined in one big military alliance. When our soldiers leave, the Europeans can easily fend for themselves. But in Asia there are few alliances, fewer real democracies, and absolutely no attractive candidates except America for the regional policeman’s role. If the U.S. military withdrew, Japan’s would probably enlarge, and this would terrify every other nation within battleship range. They’d re-arm too, they’d seek protection somewhere, and while no one can say exactly what would happen, the turmoil would probably end up hurting us more than today’s trade wars do. That’s why the “free ride” is a true dilemma. Our two obvious choices are to continue down the same dismal path or to do something even worse by encouraging today’s rich, proud, xenophobic Japan to channel its zeal into re-armament. The only escapes from the dilemma—ending the Cold War with the Russians, being hired by the Japanese as Hessians to police their trading sphere—are a long way off.

The Philippine-bases dilemma is not quite so immediately threatening to American interests, but it is nasty and important enough to deserve attention. Here too we have two bad choices. One is to move the bases someplace else. This would be technically feasible, militarily inconvenient, financially onerous, and strategically ominous, since it would reduce the military control that is now our main source of influence in the western Pacific. The other is to hold on to the bases. This would be increasingly expensive, would link our welfare to that of the Sick Man of Asia, and would, for perverse reasons that stretch back into the Philippines’ history as an American colony, postpone the moment when the Philippines gets well. The second choice, trying to hang on, may for the moment seem the less self-destructive. but it’s a close call.

If it were purely a matter of emotion and aesthetics, the decision would be simple and clear—to me, at least. The Philippines’ disorders seem so profound, and so much intertwined with the still-colonial “Fil-Am relationship,” that making a clean break seems the better of the bad choices. But of course there’s more to national interest than emotion or sentimental attachments. (Apart from an interest in oil, do we share any values with our “partners" in Saudi Arabia?) Dramatic, “cleansing” ruptures in relationships usually sound better in theory than they turn out. So as the Filipinos decide what to do with the bases, Americans should start slogging through the details of “steaming time” and “economic support payments” and, yes, “neo-colonialism,” to determine which will hurt us less: to stay or to go.

THE UNITED STATES has a few small communications centers and other military stations in the Philippines, but when Filipinos talk about “the bases” they mean two huge complexes. One is the assortment of naval facilities at SubicBay, about a three-hour drive west of Manila, on the far side of the Bataan peninsula. The other is Clark Air Base, roughly the same distance north of Manila, in the central valley of Luzon.

The two bases are America’s largest and oldest overseas facilities. The Spanish armada’s warships had been based at Subic for thirty years before Admiral Dewey trounced them at the Battle of Manila Bay, in 1898. Soon after he got a look at this perfect natural harbor—circular, well sheltered, deep enough to handle the largest vessels—Dewey moved the U.S. fleet there. Clark started out as a U.S. cavalry station but had become a military aviation center by the time of the First World War. It was on Clark’s runways that the U.S. Army Air Force planes were destroyed on December 8, 1941—the day known as Pearl Harbor Day on this side of the international dateline. The United States has more soldiers stationed in Korea, but the Philippine bases are the centers of its Asian operations, Clark’s two-mile-long runways can handle every type of American aircraft, from the attack helicopters and F-15 fighter planes of the Third Tactical Fighter Wing to, reportedly, the black, spooky-looking SR-71 “Blackbirds” that roar out on reconnaissance missions over North Korea and the Soviet Union. Subic’s harbor can handle scores of ships at a time and not even look crowded. At any given time a dozen ships are in for repair. Cubi Point Naval Air Station, at Subic, is a major repair, support, and training center for the carrier-borne aircraft of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which ranges from west of Hawai to the Cape of Good Hope. It is the only place outside the United States where planes can be lifted off aircraft-carrier decks and carried to hangars or repair shops, The U.S. military says that Subic allows training in almost every kind of naval and amphibious warfare. It includes fields where tanks maneuver, bays where Marines come ashore, and jungle-covered hillsides where soldiers learn survival and guerrilla skills. Clark has the Crow Valley Weapons Range, America’s only “fully instrumented” bombing-practice range overseas, where pilots can fire missiles into the countryside and wage computer-monitored aerial mock battles. The bases have residential suburbs, dozens of schools, colossal PXs, Go-Kart tracks. Some 5,000 sailors and Marines, plus 7,000 dependents, are assigned to Subic. Clark sustains 9,000 servicemen and 13,000 dependents. More than 10,000 Filipinos work directly for the U.S. government on the bases, and tens of thousands more are indirectly employed as contractors.

Just as Dwight Eisenhower did not foresee that American soldiers would still be in Europe four decades after V-E Day, American colonial officials did not imagine that the United States would be occupying these bases nine decades after the Spanish-American War, when we seized the Philippines from Spain. Soon after the Philippine resistance was defeated, Teddy Roosevelt himself had second thoughts about trying to hold territory that was, both geographically and culturally, so remote from America. By the early 1930s the United States was actively preparing for Philippine independence.

The first independence plan, known as the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Bill, was enacted in 1933, just before Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in. It caused a furor in the Philippines, largely because it gave America a blanket right to use the military bases after independence. Following the Philippine legislature’s rejection of the agreement, President Roosevelt urged Congress to give up the bases provision. By 1934 both countries had agreed to the Tydings-McDuffie Law, under which the Philippines was to gain full independence on July 4, 1944. On that day the Philippines would assume control of the American army bases, notably Clark. The United States would retain the use of “naval reservations and fueling stations"—principally Subic–; but only for two years after independence. America’s long-term goal was not a military alliance with the Philippines but, in the words of the law, “the perpetual neutralization of the Philippine Islands,” without any foreign bases in place.

Then war delayed Philippine independence until July 4. 1946—only two years later than originally planned but under substantially different terms. The United States now concluded that it had a permanent strategic interest in the Philippines and the bases and couldn’t afford its earlier dream of Philippine neutrality. In 1947 the two countries signed the Military Bases Agreement, which is still in effect.

The original agreement was totally one-sided. The United States could use the bases for ninety-nine years, without paying any rent. The American flag would fly over the bases, and for all practical purposes they would be overseas pieces of America. But over the years the agreement has been modified and the most egregiously colonial provisions have been whittled away. Subic and Clark are both officially Philippine, not American, bases these days. Before I could set foot on Subic during my recent visit, I had to go out to Camp Aguinaldo, the Philippine armed-forces headquarters, and file an official (but pro forma) request. The Philippine flies Hies over the base entrances, and Filipino officers are in nominal command. American operations are confined to smaller “U.S. facilities” within the Philippine bases. (On these facilities, however, the American military still functions free of Philippine control.) The United States is supposed to “consult” with the Philippine government before using the bases for purposes other than defending the Philippines itself. The bases agreement, originally scheduled to run until 2046, was curtailed in the mid-1960s, when the new expiration date of 1991 was set.

The United States has also started paying to use the originally rent-free bases. The payments are negotiated over five-year periods; during the current period, which ends this year, the United States is supposed to pay $900 million, or $180 million a year. About a third of the money is merely lent, not granted, for the Philippine military to buy American military supplies. The Filipinos can never be sure that the United States will come up with all the money it has committed. The Military Bases Agreement is a only a contract between the two countries’ Presidents, not a formal treaty. Early negotiators chose the executive-agreement approach to avoid the nuisance of getting a twothirds ratification vote in the Senate. But since the American President cannot legally appropriate money by himself, the agreement says that he will make his “best effort” to get it from Congress. Most of the time the United States comes close, but Filipino officials say they’re always waiting anxiously for the next round of appropriations hearings, rather than being able to count on a check in the mail.

The American government prissily refuses to call the payments “rent,” which is what Filipinos always call them and what they seem to be. Last summer Secretary of State George Shultz threw a widely publicized tantrum in Manila when Filipinos kept using the dreaded word. If that is what you’re going to call it, Shultz said, we’ll take our bases and go home. The problem with rent is that it implies (gasp!) that we are paying the Filipinos to cooperate. Officially, the United States prefers to describe the bases agreement as an act of open-hearted, let’s-not-count-pennies mutual assistance, like Kansas settlers’ pitching in to raise a barn. Each country benefits from the bases, so each does its part. The United States supplies the ships, planes, and soldiers; the Philippines supplies the land. As another way of doing its part, the United States also gives the Philippines $180 million a year, but this is not to be confused with “rent.”

The rent dispute illustrates two of the reasons Filipinos complain about the bases. They feel they don’t get enough money and don’t get enough respect.

THEY’VE GOT A point about the money. The current payments add something to an economy that has few other strengths, but it’s easy to see why Filipinos want more. A Rand Corporation study, released in 1982, estimated that the bases accounted for four percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product. The economy has shrunk since then, so the proportion is higher today. Granted, not all the stimulus takes the form that an economic-development expert would ideally want. “The base-side settlements of Olangapo, outside Subic, and Angeles City, near Clark, have several hundred bars, massage parlors, and brothels apiece, and many of the dollars get no further than that. Still, this means work and food for tens of thousands of Filipinos. Even the most strident anti-base activists agree that if a referendum were held now, Filipino voters would probably approve the bases by at least a 60-40 margin. (The activists go on to say, and some American diplomats have told me they agree, that after a year’s “education” campaign the vote would go the other way.)

The bases subsidize the Philippines in another, less obvious way. The Philippines faces a more plausible military threat, from the Communist guerrillas, than any nearby country except South Korea or perhaps Thailand, which perpetually rebuffs marauding Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. But the Philippines” military budget is very low. One reason is that the country doesn’t spend enough. I’ve seen soldiers march in cheap rubber beach sandals; a colonel told me that when his men are injured they are sent home and expected to pay for their own medical care. But defense is cheap also because the United States covers part of the cost, providing helicopters, radios, ammunition, and other supplies at below-market rates.

The faltering Philippine economy is presumably better off with this aid than without it. But Philippine officials argue, convincingly, that the United States could pay a lot more and still be getting a good deal. If rent were determined not by how little the desperate Philippines will accept but by how much the United States would have to pay for an alternative, it would be much higher. (Does today’s rent reflect true “market” prices? Not really, because it’s an auction with one bidder.) Re-creating Subic’s and Clark’s facilities anyplace else would cost $5 billion, $8 billion, $10 billion– the estimates vary, but they’re all large. Large enough, certainly, to justify paying more than $1 billion over five years. Even tripling the rent, unlikely as it may seem in this deficit-ridden age, would make only a small dent in the U.S. budget—an extra $2 billion over five years is half of an extra aircraft carrier, or $1.75 more per person in taxes each year. The same money would make a big difference to the Philippines. The national government takes in only about $3 billion a year in taxes; an extra $400 million would be proportionately as important as an extra $50 billion to the United States. (The easiest way to come up with an extra $1 billion would be to freeze the military’s capital-investment plan for Subic and Clark, which is scheduled to cost $1.2 billion between 1986 and 1992. Many of the investments are to improve security, but the money would probably go further toward that goal if added directly to rent.)

The “get-no-respect” complaint may be harder for Americans to take seriously than arguments about how much the bases really are worth. Why should the Filipinos make such a fuss about calling the payments rent? (For that matter, why should we?) Although I hadn’t thought so before I visited the Philippines, this sensitivity reflects something different from general Third World grumblings about neo-colonialism, and from anti-base movements in Spain and Greece. The difference is that the Philippines, alone in the world, was America’s colony. That does not mean much to Americans anymore, but it is an enormous psychological and political problem for the Philippines.

Some of the affronts to Philippine dignity are inevitable. American military spokesmen mumble sheepishly about the “base irritants problem.” When they say that, they are talking about the huge strip-joint districts of Olangapo and Angeles City. American soldiers and sailors are not the first in history to attract camp followers, but Manila newspapers often act as if they were, with big, splashy stories about VD epidemics, soldier-borne AIDS, pre-teens from the countryside being sold into concubinage. “Attendance at the brothels is pervasive through both the officer and enlisted corps,” one retired colonel told me. He said that admirals and generals regularly went along with everybody else. In Japan, American servicemen are the New Poor, and in Korea they’re just more potential customers for $8 direct-from-thefactory Reebok shoes. In the Philippines they are princes.

Focusing on the base irritants, though, is misleading. It suggests that if soldiers minded their manners, Filipinos would stop complaining. I don’t think they would, because the real damage to Philippine dignity goes much deeper. It may not be rational but it’s nonetheless true: Subic and Clark have come to epitomize the Philippines’ paralyzing dependence on the United States.

As I TRIED TO show in a previous article (“A Damaged Culture,” November, 1987, Atlantic), the Philippines has fallen behind all other non-Communist Asian countries for mainly cultural reasons. The Marcoses did their part, as did the United States from time to time, but other Asian countries have surmounted far larger obstacles than any the Marcoses could have created in their last ten, corrupt years. Japan and Korea were, at different times, both bombed to rubble, but their cultures and ethics of national and racial unity prepared people to rebuild. A strong sense of national confidence makes rural, poor Thailand, which was never colonized, seem sweettempered and progressive today. The overseas Chinese, from Taiwan and Hong Kong to Singapore and Malaysia, seem never to doubt that they can make the family business succeed. Such unifying, constructive impulses are almost totally missing from the Philippines. The country is torn apart by geographic, tribal, and class divisions, with only a feeble offsetting sense of the collective good.

There are many hypotheses about why Philippine society has become so fractured and self-defeating, but most emphasize its continuing dependence on the United States. More than forty years after they theoretically gained independence, Filipinos still talk as if they were helpless to control their own fate. It is hard to see how the country can ever stop deteriorating until it changes this mood. Unfortunately for Americans, it is even harder to imagine how the Philippines can gain self-confidence without first defying the United States.

“In 1966 I wrote an article paraphrasing Max Lerner, who said that America needed to cut the British down to brotherly size in order to use the British heritage in its drive to greatness,” Raul Manglapus told me in Manila last fall, just before Corazon Aquino appointed him Foreign Minister. “We have to cut the American father down to brotherly size if we are to mature. The bases agreement is part of what we must change. It has had a profound effect on the psychology of our people.”

“You just think of the experience of Whitman, Emerson, Melville,” the writer F. Sionil Jose said a few days later. “They were responsible for the flowering of American literature. But they could do that only after they rejected the European romanticism. That is what we have to do as well—reject the tremendous cultural domination of our country by the United States. At least in our minds, we have to kill the American father.”

Neither of these men could be called a lightweight or a hothead. Manglapus, a slight, dark-haired man with immense dignity, was the Philippines’ Foreign Minister under President Magsaysay more than thirty years ago, in his midthirties. He spent the martial-law years in exile in the United States (where he wrote an improbable-sounding but witty musical comedy about the PhilippineAmerican war), and with the coming of the Aquino era won election to the Senate. When Aquino’s Vice President, Salvador Laurel, resigned his seat as Foreign Minister, practically begging that Aquino be toppled in a coup so that he could take over, Manglapus was his widely praised replacement. “Frankie” Jose, jovial and rotund, in his early sixties, is one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, the author of the fivevolume Rosales saga. (The full set includes The Pretenders, Po-On, Tree, My Brother, My Executioner, and Mass, all out of print in the United States but available from Jose’s Solidaridad Publishing House, in Manila.) When people like this start saying they have to kill the American father, something is going on.

The Philippine attitude toward America is normally described as a “love-hate relationship,” but the emotions are more tangled and harmful than this cliché would imply. The love side can be overwhelming—older Filipinos sometimes greeted me like a son simply because I was from the United States—but even it is unwholesome, since it reflects a craving for affection, rather than respect between equals. The love is closely intertwined, often in the same person, with envy, suspicion, and resentment of America, precisely because the two countries cannot deal as equals.

Since most Americans spend little or no time thinking about the Philippines, it may be hard for them to imagine how often Filipinos think about the United States. If a newspaper column starts by discussing Philippine politics, it will end by doping out the American angle. If a politician talks about Philippine economics, he will inevitably explain why America caused the problems, or could solve them if it cared.

Shortly after the attempted coup last August, I met a group of economics students at the University of the Philippines. One young woman went down the list of American evils—control of the economy, manipulation of politics, secret backing of the coup so as to install a reliably pro-base government.

Okay, I said when she was finished. Maybe, if the bases cause such trouble, it would be better if we took them out. “You mean you’d abandon us?” she asked with a gasp. “We thought we could count on you.” Overcoming this gnarled, resentful helplessness is what killing the American father is all about.

The Philippine Communists’ most powerful weapon is the deep injustice of Philippine society, but hostility toward the American father is useful to them too. During the Marcos years the standard protest banner read DOWN WITH THE U.S.-MARCOS DICTATORSHIP. Since last fall protesters have denounced the Aquino government in similar terms. The Communists are against American influence in all its forms, but the bases are a handy, emotional cause. They and other leftists can go on for hours about why the bases are bad. Subic and Clark are part of America’s global first-strike military strategy, are staging grounds for covert intervention in the Philippines and “low-intensity conflict” through Asia, are corrupting morals without really helping the economy, are living symbols of neo-colonialism, and are actually endangering the Philippines by making it a likely target for Soviet nuclear attack. The leftists have to turn handstands to make the last point, since other wise they would deplore any suggestion that the Soviet Union might use nuclear weapons or that one place might be safer than another in a nuclear war. But the nuclear-target argument has obvious impact in the Philippines, as it has had in New Zealand and elsewhere in the Pacific. The result of the left’s anti-base campaign is another of our dilemmas: removing the bases might destabilize the Aquino government, but keeping them, by deepening the Filipinos’ sense of dependency and by giving the Communists a powerful nationalist issue, does too.

“Killing the American father” could come to have a less figurative meaning. Last October three American military men were shot to death near Clark, presumably by Communists. Political murder is widespread in the Philippines, but until that point Americans had been exempt. The killings may or may not point toward a trend, but everyone knows that the bases are vulnerable. “During the staff’s visit to Clark, there was no visible sign of posted Philippine guards,” a U.S. Senate investigator reported late in 1985. “Of the 26-mile perimeter, only seven miles are fenced. Filipinos living outside the perimeter have literally stolen the fencing. . . . The ease with which thieves prey on the base points to the vulnerability of the facility to determined terrorists or the NPA, should they choose to attack. . . . In the past three weeks, the presence of an armed NPA squad, camped within the actual base perimeter, has been detected.”

“The bases will always exacerbate tensions with the United States,” Armando Malay told me. Like Manglapus and Jose, he is one of the country’s patriarchs—a lean, weathered figure who has been a professor at the University of the Philippines and is a veteran man of the left. “As long as they are here, they will always be an irritant. The insurgents wall always use them as an issue.” Here he speaks with authority: his daughter, Bobby Malay, and her husband, Satur Ocampo, are famous Communist leaders. “If you removed them, we would all be free of a very emotional problem.

“If we got rid of the bases and the Russians invaded us, then we would have made the wrong choice. But at least we would have been sovereign for a year.”

WE RETURN TO our dilemma. The bases are convenient, cheap, already in place. It would be an expensive nuisance to move them anywhere else. But the Filipinos who dislike the bases really dislike them, and—if I may be permitted yet another subjective judgment—they seem to have thought more deeply about why their country is failing than those who want to keep the bases for the money they bring in. The opposition seems certain to grow. A military government might bottle it up for a while, but the only thing that could really stop it is wildly improbable. That would be a complete change in the stillcolonial love-hate relationship, so that the bases were no longer part of the pathology that keeps the Philippines spiraling down. Without that change—or some other miracle—the economy will sputter and social order will deteriorate. Our bases and soldiers, there to protect our interests (and the Philippines’), will need protection themselves. Keeping our Philippine bases might not be so dangerous as staying in Lebanon, but it would be harder than staying in Spain or Greece—and harder than maintaining a presence in the Philippines if we didn’t have bases there to worry about. Some Filipinos recognize this last point. “Without the bases, we’re Zimbabwe,” a businessman named Fred Elizalde told me.

One choice for America is to grit our teeth and hold on. The Filipinos are unhappy? So what? Fidel Castro has been unhappy for three decades, but American Marines are at Guantanamo today. The parallel is not exact. The Philippine bases are 6,500 miles away, not a hundred, from the continental United States, and the United States enjoys long-term extra-territorial rights over Guantanamo which it lacks in the Philippines. (Many Filipinos seem unaware of these differences and suspect that if, “like Cuba,” they ordered us out, we’d refuse to go.) The most likely disaster scenario for the Philippines does not involve a complete Vietnam-style Communist takeover, which would force a withdrawal from the bases. The country, with its thousands of islands, is hard for any force to sweep through, and so far neither the army nor the guerrillas seem capable of conclusively beating the other side. Instead, military observers say, disaster would probably mean fragmentation: the country could fall apart into seven or eight fiefdoms, some controlled by the Communists, others by local warlords. This would be bad for the Filipinos but not necessarily crippling to the United States. The big bases are both near Manila, the area the centra! government has traditionally been most able to control.

If the United States had to hold on to the bases, then, it could. It obviously has the muscle to win a test of force, and it has the money, even now, to buy the Filipinos off for a while. But does it have to hold on? What about trying to spare itself future trouble—fighting a Communist revolution, dealing with terrorists, taking moral and political responsibility for another pro-base dictator—by voluntarily moving out?

Although officials at the U.S. Embassy and at the bases patiently deflect questions about alternate sites, of course the government has been studying them. Reports from the war colleges, various universities and think tanks, and congressional offices differ in detail but agree on two main points. First, it would be harder and more expensive to do the same jobs from any other site. Second, the jobs could be done.

That it could be done is an important starting point. If it were not so—if leaving Subic and Clark meant leaving Asia altogether—we’d have to hang on as tenaciously as the Russians do in Cuba, at least until we figured out how much of an Asian presence we, for our own reasons, wanted to maintain. There are other places to put the facilities that are now at Subic and Clark. The three options discussed in most military analyses are shifting to existing American bases (in Japan, Guam, and Hawaii); building new bases on the Micronesian islands east of the Philippines, where the United States has obtained basing rights; and making new arrangements elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

None of the options would be quite so good as Subic and Clark. Unlike any alternative, the Philippine bases are already there, and don’t have to be built from the ground up. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, the capital value of buildings, machinery, and equipment at the two bases is slightly over $2 billion. Rebuilding the bases from the ground up would cost several times that much. Five years ago Admiral Robert Long, then the commander-in-chief of U.S. Pacific forces, estimated that it would cost $3 billion to $4 billion to shift to Guam and Micronesia. Two years ago the Congressional Research Service calculated that if the military wanted to make up for every minute of extra steaming time from more-remote alternative bases, it would have to buy five or six more carrier battle groups, at some $10 billion apiece. This is a Club of Rome-like unfulfillable prediction, as the study’s author admitted. Confronted with such figures, congressmen would be less likely to say, “Here’s sixty billion dollars!” than to ask “Exactly what are we steaming to?” Because the bases have been so cheap for so long, they’ve let the United States get by without asking such questions. As basing costs rise —in the Philippines or anywhere else— and our resources shrink, the bases won’t automatically be vital anymore.

Even after they were built, operating other bases would be expensive. Subic and Clark have developed large, reliable, highly skilled Filipino work forces, who are paid a lot by Philippine standards but much less than it would take to hire more workers at Pearl Harbor or Japan’s Yokosuka base, or in Micronesia, where virtually no skilled workers now exist. In 1978 a twelve-hour man day cost $29 in the Philippines and $179 in Japan. The yen has gone up and the peso down since then.

“The most potent argument for keeping the bases is that they are cut-rate multipurpose western Pacific pitstops where the U.S. military can resupply, train, recreate, repair and relax on the cheap,” James Sterba wrote two years ago in The Wall Street Journal. “Skilled laborers, paid far below the U.S. minimum wage, who speak English, who like Americans [sic]. who permit American military personnel to live in a lifestyle unmatched at other bases, and who allow the U.S. military to storm beaches, bomb and strafe bamboo villages, are unique in the world.”

BUT ONCE WE’VE thought about cost, we’ve faced the worst news about relocating the bases. This isn’t like moving out of West Berlin. The purely strategic obstacles are, in most cases, easy to overcome. Why, after all, did the United States hold on to the bases after the Second World War? Forward deployment in Asia was originally meant to contain the godless Chinese. That rationale is entirely gone. Some U.S. military studies warn that losing the bases would mean retracting America’s own defense perimeter, but this is ludicrous. The only threats to America’s physical security come from Soviet missiles and terrorist bombs, and the Philippine bases can’t help protect us against either. In the sky’s-the-limit early Reagan years, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman often talked about a Navy bold enough to take the fight directly to the Soviets, hunting them down in their home ports. None of the American Embassy or military officials I interviewed in the Philippines offered this as a justification for Subic. So why are the bases there? They have three stated functions: helping out in Northeast Asia, or Korea and Japan and the sea lanes leading there; serving as a way point for routine show-the-flag missions in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East and also supporting unusual operations like the current Persian Gulf patrol; and policing Southeast Asia as a whole, which includes defending the Philippines.

The first mission involves the most important countries but depends least on bases in the Philippines. Subic and Clark are a long way south of Japan and Korea, and the United States has large forces on the scene in both those countries. (Manila is at the same latitude as Honduras, Seoul and Tokyo at about the same as Washington.) American strategy in Korea calls for a “come as you are’ defense against North Korean invasion, rather than counting on rapid reinforcement from the Philippines. A conventional invasion of Japan must be the world’s least appetizing military prospect. It was dread of just such an undertaking, when Japan was already beaten to a pulp in the Second World War, that persuaded President Harry Truman to drop the atomic bombs. Japan needs some protection, and the straits that surround it need to be patrolled, but those jobs can be done by forces in Japan.

The second mission, supporting Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf operations, does depend heavily on the Philippine bases. Subic is the hub for the Seventh Fleet, and Clark is the major trans-shipment point for men and goods going to the Gulf. Supporting the same missions without the Philippines would be more costly, but there’s no strictly geographical reason why it couldn’t be done. For instance, a 1986 Congressional Research Service study concluded that Micronesian bases, such as Tinian and Saipan, “would provide a relatively secure sea route ... to the Indian Ocean through the Indonesia Straits.” The Navy has sunk about $75 billion into its shipbuilding program in the past seven years— largely to make its fleet more mobile and less dependent on specific bases. What was the point, if the Navy’s still hostage at Subic? The Air Force might have a bigger problem. The haul from Clark to the island of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, is 3,366 nautical miles—about as far as a transport plane can go with enough cargo to make the trip worthwhile. The Micronesian islands are about a thousand miles farther from Diego Garcia. But the trip to Diego Garcia is a thousand miles shorter from Singapore than from Clark, so Air Force planes starting in Micronesia could stop there or in Darwin, Australia, and reach the Indian Ocean with full payloads. The U.S. Navy already uses commercial docks in Singapore for ship repair and operates anti-submarine aircraft and tanker planes from Singapore air fields.

That leaves the question of Southeast Asia, where the location of the bases does make a difference. First, they place the U.S. military on the lip of the South China Sea. When a P-3C Orion takes off from Cubi Point, it is “on-station,” patrolling for Soviet submarines, virtually the instant its wheels leave the runway. A plane coming from Guam would have to spend four hours reaching its “on-station” point and four hours getting back, which wastes eight of the twelve hours it can spend in the air. Second, Subic and Clark are widely seen as counterweights to the (American-built) Soviet bases in Vietnam, at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. The Soviet installations are much smaller and less valuable.

One evening in Singapore, I asked a Soviet diplomat how his government would view a bases swap—we leave the Philippines, they leave Vietnam. “Oh!” he said, nearly swallowing an ice cube in eagerness. “We would be ready!” Still, the Soviet bases are seen by neighboring governments as an annoyance and a potential threat. And—perhaps the most important pro-bases factor—those same governments are obviously counting on the United States to stay in the Philippines.

This attitude is vexing in several ways. Most governments refuse to be honest about it. Indonesia and Malaysia are fire-breathing “non-aligned” nations, proudly opposed to all overseas bases. Communist China can’t publicly say that American bombers and warships are a constructive force. But Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and all the other countries bordering the South China Sea, except Cambodia and Vietnam, have sent unmistakable signals that they want the bases to stay. The reason is simple: removing them would upset a stable status quo that has spared most of the region the ravages of war (the noble view) and allowed it to concentrate on getting rich (the practical view). At a symposium last November in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave a rosy (from the local perspective) forecast of Asian development into the next century and said that only three things could disturb it. One was Japanese rearmament, the second was fierce protectionism in the United States, and the third was an American departure from the Philippines.

“The underlying basis for growth since World War Two, especially in Asia, has been the stability and security provided by the United States,” he said. “For several decades to come, there is no other power that can maintain the balance against the increasing presence of the Soviet navy and air force in the Par East.” This he said, without drama, in his prepared speech. Then he adlibbed, with real passion, about the effect an American military withdrawal from Asia could have on the Japanese. “The most terrifying thought for me is a fundamental shift in the belief of the Japanese that the world that they have known since 1945”—that is, the world of Pax Americana in Asia—“is at an end and that they have to either depend on themselves or align themselves or come to some understanding with China or the Soviet Union. Then there is a joker in the pack.”

THE ASIAN ATTITUDE is irritating also because it forces Americans to confront an extremely unpleasant modern truth. It needs to be emphasized, because it’s hard to accept: military power is now our principal source of influence in Asia. Now that we are borrowing money from others rather than lending it, now that our appetite for exports must shrink, the main reason that Japan, Korea, China, and others pay attention to us is that we have aircraft carriers and B-52s. Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States has other strengths, of course. The American market is still the largest, our technology is in many areas still ahead of or competitive with Japan’s, our universities are, despite last year’s best sellers, clearly the most attractive in the world. But Japan now has the money that commands respect and, in Asia at least, the reputation of being tomorrow’s country. The United States is listened to in large part because of the Seventh Fleet.

But if we consider the bases from America’s standpoint, not Lee Kuan Yew’s, even in Southeast Asia they are not indispensable. Subic and Clark may maintain America’s “presence” in Southeast Asia, but in actual combat they’ve proved very difficult to use. The Philippine government is supposed to be consulted before the bases are used for any operation except home-island defense. This has turned into de facto veto power. During the Vietnam War, Clark would have been the logical starting point for bombing raids on Vietnam, but out of consideration for Philippine feelings the bombers left from Guam and Okinawa instead. The United States also built an expensive new B-52 base in Thailand, now abandoned, because of the difficulty of using Clark. It’s hard to imagine that Southeast Asian combat will ever seem more vital to the United States than the government thought it was in the 1960s. The military made do with more-remote bases then; why not now? Moreover, Southeast Asia grows richer and more stable by the day. It may please Lee Kuan Yew and his neighbors to have us keep the peace for them indefinitely, but maybe we can’t afford it anymore without help from someone else.

I don’t pretend to have found a way out of the dilemma. I know only, to repeat what I said at the outset, that we have two choices, both bad.

But I have a proposal for balancing vague-sounding concerns—neo-colonialism, cultural damage—against the hard strategic interests of the United States. I think we should gradually but definitely move out of the Philippines. It should be gradual so that it doesn’t pull the rug out from under the Aquino government, so that it doesn’t look like a panicked retreat, so that we have a chance to think calmly and carefully about what to do next. Perhaps we could bring the Russians out of Vietnam at the same time, not as an even swap but as a bonus. Perhaps we should start with the airmen and planes based at Clark, which is by all estimates easier and less costly to duplicate than Subic. Perhaps we could arrange other, less emotionally trying basing deals with other nearby countries. Raul Manglapus, the Philippine Foreign Minister, has been urging the Southeast Asian countries that benefit from the bases to share political responsibility for them. So far he’s mainly flustered his neighbors, but over the years some may come around. Late last year even Malaysia’s generally antiWestern Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, said that the Philippine bases were “necessary” as long as Russia stayed in Vietnam. Perhaps we could work on both our Asian defense dilemmas at once, convincing the Japanese that they should pay rent for bases that protect the shipments that keep them alive. Perhaps we could consider how much of an Asian presence we need to keep the peace and preserve our influence.

But, even if we do it gradually, we should go. Nothing is inevitable, but more and more trouble in the Philippines is highly likely. If we stay, we’ll be caught in it: if we stay, we’ll help bring it on. We’ll do better, with our bad choices, to make the decision ourselves rather than eventually being pushed. That can help us buy time to work out America’s grand strategy for the late twentieth century: the least damaging way to withdraw from commitments we can no longer afford.

—;James Fallows