Whenever someone begins talking about Angola, as members of Congress seem to be doing again for the first time in a decade, I always think of Daniel Gearhart.
Gearhart was an idealistic young man who signed up to fight in Angola in 1976 when the current government was installed with Soviet and Cuban backing. Like a lot of soldiers of fortune, he didn't know much about what he was getting into before he landed in the thick of a very nasty civil war. Gearhart was executed by a firing squad July 10, 1976. His war lasted three days, and was apparently without action before he was captured and put on trial. Because he was a Marylander and I had sympathy for his family, I flew to Portugal in an effort to reach Angola and make a personal plea for his life. My request for a visa was denied by the Angolan government.
So, in a personal sense, one would suspect that I would be attracted to current efforts to put the U.S. government back into Angola's civil war. Some members of Congress want open military aid to the forces behind Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA. Others want so-called humanitarian aid. The President has said he favors giving covert aid to Savimbi.
The appropriate response to all three of these options is "none of the above." Active U.S. intervention in Angola--in anything but the most creative diplomatic sense--is not in our national interest. It would destroy our credibility as a mediator in this strife-torn region. Our contacts with the major countries in the area, already frayed by the scant results of "constructive engagement," would dry up. Any chance of reaching a settlement on Namibia would be dashed. We would sacrifice our ability to talk to all sides. We would be aligning ourselves with Pretoria at the very time the President and Congress have declared that South Africa's policies constitute a critical threat to our national security.
All of black Africa, which already doubts our readiness to put pressure on South Africa to change its racist--and ultimately destabilizing--system of apartheid, would lose faith in our leadership. The Organization of African Unity has declared that U.S. intervention in Angola would be considered "a hostile act."
I seriously doubt that a limited intervention would have much effect in the long term. Like it or not, the Soviet-Cuban investment in Angola has developed certain roots. And while Angola is hardly a vital Soviet interest, it is unlikely that Moscow would permit a client state to be overthrown. Escalation would make it much harder to achieve our main goal--to get the Cuban troops sent home.
I agree that our present policy is not working well. But we need to press harder in the other direction to attempt to wean the current government away from its Soviet and Cuban protectors, to create the grounds for a reconciliation between Angola's ethnic divisions. That has been the thrust of efforts toward Mozambique, and it appears to be working. Samora Machel's government is moving away from Marxist allegiances, accepting military aid from the West and opening up the economy.
The elements for a substantial shift on the part of the Angolan government are equally promising. Given today's hot rhetoric and seat-of-the-pants strategies for U.S. intervention in Angola, most Americans would be surprised to discover that Angola's largest single trading partner is not the Soviet Union or Cuba, but the United States--more than $1 billion annually. The power of economic and financial forces is immense, as the quick reaction of the South African government to problems in the rescheduling of its foreign debt demonstrated.
Some of the most vigorous boosters of U.S. aid to Angolan rebels criticize Gulf Oil and other American firms in Angola for aiding communism. They stand the actual circumstances on their head. Angola's leaders may not be Wall Street-trained venture capitalists, but they know the difference between the dynamic economies of the West and the sluggish economies of the Soviet Bloc. American companies in Angola must be allowed to broaden their role and continue to nudge Angola into more enduring ties with the West.
Even militarily, there is no compelling case for giving aid to Savimbi's forces. His legions have been doing fine for several years without U.S. aid; they recently withstood the largest assault ever mounted by Soviet and Cuban-guided Angolan troops; and the rainy season, which favors his guerrilla tactics, is just beginning.
It is tragically ironic: If this Administration's policy of constructive engagement had been more effective, South African troops would not be invading Angola. And Angola, which has repeatedly expressed interest in sending its 30,000 Cuban troops home, would be more willing to do so.
At some point, the Administration should be able to give this process a real push by establishing diplomatic relations with Angola--the only African country with which we do not have relations. An increase in our contacts and visibility would provide more accurate information and enhance our ability to influence events.
This article can't begin to examine the nature of UNITA and its charismatic but avowedly Marxist leader. But a pragmatic course of action by the United States, one that leads with our strengths, diplomatic credibility and economic vitality is certainly preferable to the aimless, Rambo-like rumblings of the far right.