Not long ago the television news dutifully broadcast the rantings and ravings of some wild-eyed Third World pistol-wavers as they burned an American flag. This scene, whether played out in Teheran or Berkeley or Beirut, never fails to produce in me the desired effect—rage and Rambo fantasies. My blood pressure eventually returned to normal, as it always does, and I sat down to read a Wall Street Journal article about Salvador Laurel, the odds-on favorite to succeed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the scheduled 1987 elections.
The Journal reported Laurel's obsequious efforts to ingratiate himself with American politicos. For instance, last year he anointed congressman and professional junketeer Rep. Stephen Solarz (D–N.Y.) as an honorary son of Batangas Province after the honorable solon speared "a tiny 10-centavo coin with a native dagger." Laurel recently took his traveling toady show on the road for a one-week run in our nation's capital, where he met with State Department pinstripers and Capitol Hill muckamucks.
For ambitious politicians scrambling to succeed the ailing Marcos, the Journal noted, "politicking in America is nearly as important as campaigning back home." Not to worry, for Laurel passed his test with flying colors. A congressional aide's verdict: "Eighty percent of Congress can live with Laurel."
Eighty percent of Congress can live with Laurel. Think about that for a minute. Why on earth should a politician from an island chain half way around the globe come slouching, hat in hand, to seek the blessing of our elected officials in Washington (a city that is now presumably awash in mutilated Filipino dimes)? Shouldn't Laurel be concerned about winning favor with Joe and Josephine Doe on Main Street, Philippines? Aren't they the ones who are going to have to "live with Laurel"? Have our representatives suffered a case of collective geographic amnesia?
The answer, alas, is that Washington has "vital interests" in the Philippines. President McKinley seized this Pacific island chain from Spanish colonialists in 1898 and, though the US government finally granted the Philippines independence in 1946, Uncle Sam keeps a close watch on his former colony. Two large US military bases still grace the islands, and the US defense and intelligence communities take an active interest in the course of Filipino politics.
Salvador Laurel may be a fine man and a patriot. Perhaps he'll win the election and inaugurate an era of peace and freedom and good will toward all men in the Philippines. But I wish to hell that he didn't have to primp and prance before the likes of Stephen Solarz.
When American bureaucrats and statesmen see the world as a giant Risk board on which every move in every country affects our national interest and every dispute calls for American intervention and meddling, is it really so hard to understand why nationalistic foreigners burn our flag? To many Filipinos, the red, white, and blue doesn't stand for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; instead, it's an ugly reminder of 85 years of American domination.
The innocent bystanders in all of this are the American people, most of whom don't give two hoots about Filipino politics. They wish the Filipino people well and would prefer to have peaceful relations with them, but they are quite willing to have the Philippine election decided in Manila, not on the Potomac. I sure haven't seen any Laurel for President posters on my block.
Not so long ago, America had a politician who understood these things. He realized that foreign interventions stirred up hatred and usually resulted in the loss of freedom for Americans, as well—via forced military service, repression of dissent, and increased government control of the economy. His name was Robert Taft; he was the leading Senate Republican in the 1940s and early 1950s; and he made the case as well as anyone ever has for minding our own business:
Frankly, the American people don't want to rule the world, and we are not equipped to do it. Such imperialism is wholly foreign to our ideals of democracy and freedom. It is not our manifest destiny or our national destiny. We may think we are better than other peoples, more competent to rule, but will they think so?
I don't think Robert Taft would feel much at home in Washington today.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Burning Flags".