Commentary Magazine

Waltzing With a Dictator, by Raymond Bonner

Washington vs. Manila

Waltzing With a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy.
by Raymond Bonner.
Times Books. 533 pp. $19.95.

Suddenly, it seems, nobody in the West wants strongmen any more. From South Korea to Haiti to Panama, authoritarian regimes that once seemed eminently solid are getting a substantial shake-down. Militarized anti-Communism is out. Elections and middle-class participation are in.

The most important case of this phenomenon to date is the strange, convoluted, and turbulent saga of Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines. A special authoritarian in a special country, Marcos, together with his wife, the grasping, voluble Imelda, is now a spectral presence on the ash-heap of history. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, a very real, very dangerous battle continues over control of the forces unleashed in the Marcos overthrow. Down the road is still the substantial prospect of a civil war à la El Salvador between the government of Corazon Aquino (or its successor, of whatever stripe) and the Communist New People’s Army. With or without Marcos, the Marcos legacy promises to be with us for a very long time.



Analyzing that legacy is certainly a matter of vital importance for the United States, where the question of how to define and defend national interests is so often bandied about under the false heading of dictatorship vs. democracy. And in fact an avalanche of literature dealing with the triumph of Mrs. Aquino is headed our way as fast as publishers can push the manuscripts through their word processors. It is the great good fortune of almost all of these publishers that the first entry past the post is Raymond Bonner’s Waltzing With a Dictator, for it is bound to make many subsequent offerings, whatever their other merits or deficiencies, appear reflective and thoughtful by contrast.

Thoughtfulness and reflection do not seem to be Bonner’s style. A one-time Marine and subsequently a lawyer for Ralph Nader’s consumerist movement, Bonner stumbled into journalism almost by happenstance. He has since become a noted practitioner of what might be called “accusatory journalism,” a sometimes profitable form of populist expatiation. His habitual target, as in his previous book, Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador, is the foreign policy-making apparatus of the American government. A former New York Times-man in Central America, Bonner became something of a cause célèbre in the early 80’s when his reportage was felt by conservatives to be carrying a trifle too much water for the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas of El Salvador. And truth to tell, if Weakness and Waltzing are anything to go by, Bonner has rarely come across a guerrilla movement he does not admire, except, one guesses, the Nicaraguan contras.

Bonner is a formidably energetic journalist, as well as a remarkably biased and muddled one. He has spared no effort, including some that clearly should have been spared, to prove that the entire period of Marcos’s “constitutional authoritarianism,” dating from his 1972 invocation of martial law to his 1986 overthrow, was the fault of the U.S. In fact, Bonner is happy to charge quite a bit more: that virtually everything wrong with the Philippines over the past ninety years or so can be traced to American greed, desire for strategic advantage (the Clark Air Force and Subic Bay military bases), or simple racism.

Perhaps Bonner’s most startling accusation is that Marcos’s plan to invoke martial law in the Philippines was made known to, and tacitly approved by, President Richard M. Nixon. As Bonner puts it:

Marcos said afterward that he had “prayed to God for guidance” before making the fateful decision. Contrary to what was officially stated, he had also consulted with Washington, specifically with the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. In the days before his proclamation of martial law Marcos spoke with Nixon at least once, telling the American President what he was about to do. He heard no objection.

Leaving aside the lawyerly ambiguity of that last sentence, one might well wonder about the proof of this interesting revelation. It boils down to a couple of remarks: one, said to have been made by Marcos to an aide the day after declaring martial law; and the other, at third hand, by Marcos’s foreign minister to another party who later passed the story on to Bonner. For Bonner, the final proof of the pudding is the assessment of a senior CIA official (we must take Bonner’s word for his status) who infers that Marcos “‘just would not have gone ahead without some assurance that he was not going to get clobbered.’ And that assurance, this CIA officer says, could have come only from Nixon.”

All in all, quite an inferential ziggurat, especially considering that Bonner devotes much effort in the rest of his book to showing that Ferdinand Marcos was among other things a dedicated and accomplished liar. This spotlighted charge, however, says a great deal about Bonner’s journalistic methods. He is a journalist to whom the word “alleged” is a foreign locution. He is also one for whom hearsay, the say-so of one disgruntled official over another, or the testimony of a favored source over a bureaucratic rival is a special form of proof. When these begin to pall, he resorts to the staggering generalization, as in:

Americans demand law and order, at home and abroad. They also expect the people of other countries to govern themselves as Americans do; when they don’t measure up, the reaction is to assume that they are not capable of the responsibility a democracy requires and therefore not worthy of the freedom it allows.

In Bonner’s view, the United States got dictatorship in the Philippines because Washington wanted it, opting at almost every turn for Marcos’s brand of authoritarianism over democracy (never really defined) and human rights (ditto). This, in turn, makes the U.S. responsible for poverty in the Philippines, for the “feudal” pattern of land ownership, and for the growing Communist insurgency. And if the Communists ever do take over, the United States will be responsible for that, too.

Washington, Bonner claims, never confronted Marcos properly:

A dictator has to be convinced that the entire political relationship between his country and the United States is at stake; that if the repression doesn’t stop, that if he doesn’t open up his country to democracy, he is jeopardizing not just a few more trinkets but his country’s good relations with Washington.

But Bonner’s definition of a dictator is rather limited, and seems to exclude anyone claiming to rule on behalf of the proletariat. Marcos, he says, was “in the mold of a Somoza, a shah, a Park Chung Hee, a Diem.” Once you have seen one of these dictators, apparently, you’ve seen them all.

When it comes to Communist parties in the Philippines, by contrast, Bonner is a man of exquisite nuance. Of the postwar Huk rebellion, he writes: “What Washington was seeking to crush was a peasant guerrilla army known as the Huks, born of the union of the Communist and Socialist parties in order to deal with legitimate grievances. . . .” He can also say, apparently pokerfaced, that “The Philippine Communist party was founded . . . with the openly avowed goals of overthrowing the United States colonial government and replacing it with an independent Philippines patterned after the Soviet Union.” Of the current, Communist-led New People’s Army, he notes that it represents a “homegrown, indigenous revolution,” even though NPA leaders “had studied Marx and Lenin and were devotees of Mao; some of the leaders had secretly been in China in 1967 and 1968. They also borrowed from the Vietnamese insurgency, the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua, and the mistakes of the Salvadoran guerrillas.” (Those mistakes, according to the Salvadoran guerrillas themselves, include calling for an all-out armed offensive against the government too soon.)

The essential similarity of all anti-Communist dictators, and the homespun quality of the Communist guerrilla movement (which “built schools, helped peasant farmers, dispensed justice”), are two important aspects of Bonner’s main thesis: as often as not, the best method for the U.S. to foster its foreign-policy goals is to attack its own authoritarian allies frontally. If this sounds like a replay of the famed human-rights debate that polarized thinking in the Carter and early Reagan administrations, it is—except that Bonner feels the Carter administration sold out completely in its toleration of the Marcos regime.

The illustration of that charge is another major axis of Bonner’s book. In the manner of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, Bonner personalizes the issue through two antagonists, Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs in the Carter administration, and Patricia Derian, Carter’s outspoken Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. Bonner—surprise—comes down heavily on Derian’s side in the conflict between the two officials. Holbrooke is excoriated for giving a higher priority to an agreement with Marcos over the disposition of U.S. military bases in the Philippines than to human-rights considerations. Derian, on the other hand, can do little wrong in Bonner’s eyes, though to a less partisan observer she might well appear to be notable for other personal qualities. (After a meeting with then-Vice President Walter Mondale, in which she failed to persuade him to call off a ceremonial visit to the Philippines, Derian reminisced: “It was as unpleasant and disgusting a meeting as I have ever had with a U.S. government official. I came away with no respect at all for Mondale.”)

One might think that Bonner’s opinion of U.S. perfidy would change when his tale arrives at the climactic events of 1985 and 1986, the assassination of Mrs. Aquino’s husband Benigno, the subsequent mass mobilizations of aggrieved middle-class Filipinos, the fraudulent elections viewed so vividly on American television, the final tilt of Washington toward Marcos’s ouster. But no. As Bonner sees it, most of the progressive U.S. maneuvering in that period was the work of lower-rung professional officials often bucking the White House (to give Bonner credit, he exhaustively highlights those officials and their accomplishments). The Reagan administration remains forever behind the learning curve.



What is missing from Bonner’s book, aside from a sense of balance and judiciousness in presenting his evidence? Most saliently, any real feeling for the Philippines, and a level gaze at the Marcoses, who are, after all, the occasion for his diatribe. Although Bonner is detailed to a fault on the gaudy extravagance and greed of Imelda, and the heavy-handed wooing of U.S. policy-makers, he seems to have little or no clue at all to the sources of Marcos’s political influence, what constituencies he cultivated, how factions were played off against one another—and how it came about that all of Marcos’s fabled political savvy could have toppled into the disaster of the Aquino murder. Nor does Bonner seem to know or care much about the complexities of government facing Marcos’s successor.

The customs and conventions of Philippine society, which might have a significant role to play in the Marcos drama, also seem to elude Bonner. He notes, as others have done, the dominant role of utang na loob, the reciprocal code of personal obligations that binds Filipino society together. Almost of itself, this code is bound to create power relationships that a Western observer might judge to be cronyism, a charge frequently and accurately leveled against Marcos. How did that affect the Philippines under Marcos, and how will it affect the future? Can cronyism be avoided in such a culture—especially on the Left, where trading in state power and patronage usually replaces trade in private favors and property? No one appears to have leaked any answers to Bonner.



Spelunking through the U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy in search of a one-note answer to world problems, Bonner is, above all, unaware of the fundamental challenge of foreign policy itself, which involves the balancing of one interest against another. Probably nowhere in the world is this problem more complicated than here in this country, where so many of the interests to be balanced are internal, functions of a constitutionally mandated division of powers. As we are all too painfully aware, the same constraints severely limit the number of issues that a policy-making establishment can consider a top priority at any given time. One cause of Bonner’s outrage is his inability to understand how, from 1972 to 1985, the Vietnam war, Watergate, Iran and the hostages (part I), Afghanistan, the Middle East, Central America, and a few other things might have affected our vigilance of the situation in the Philippines. In this, at least, Bonner still thinks like a true single-issue advocate.

At one point in his fulmination, Bonner notes that “it is difficult for Americans to accept that they don’t always know what is best for the rest of the world.” Admiring the thought, one is driven to wonder: did Bonner remember, when he was writing it, that he too was an American?



About the Author

George Russell is the executive editor of Fox New Channel.

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