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U.S. Administration Keeps Cold War Hot in Angola : Foreign policy: The case for aid to UNITA is weak, but domestic politics and the corrupt government in Luanda keep the money flowing.

November 18, 1990|Michael Clough | Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

NEW YORK — If the Cold War is over, why is the Bush Administration spending taxpayers' dollars to help fight a war against communism in Angola?

Congress debated this question last month and failed to reach a clear conclusion. By a narrow margin, the House voted to allow the Administration to continue covert military aid to the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), a guerrilla movement led by Jonas Savimbi, until the Angolan government in Luanda meets a complicated set of conditions.

Since 1975, at least 300,000 people have died, directly or indirectly, because of the civil war in Angola. Another 40,000 have lost one or more limbs, mostly from land-mine explosions. As many as a million people--of a population of 9 million to 10 million--have fled their homes. The combined effects of war and drought may soon put 1.9 million at risk of famine, relief agencies estimate.

Primary blame for this senseless war rests with the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-Workers Party (MPLA) and UNITA. But their bloody pursuits have been abetted and sustained by arms and advisers from a variety of foreign countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Reagan Administration achieved its two objectives in Angola. All but a small contingent of Cuban troops have withdrawn from Angola as part of a deal to bring about the independence of neighboring Namibia; and, as most conservatives acknowledge, the Soviet threat to U.S. interests in the Third World has evaporated.

Why, then, does the United States continue to aid UNITA? The Bush Administration has put forward two arguments.

First, consistent with the Administration's post-Cold War theme of ending regional conflicts, Secretary of State James A. Baker III has argued that continued aid to UNITA will facilitate a negotiated settlement. This argument is disingenuous.

The Administration assumes the MPLA is on the ropes militarily and will soon accept UNITA's terms. This is possible. The MPLA has already made far more concessions--including the principle of multiparty elections--than expected.

It is just as possible, however, that UNITA, egged on by U.S. conservatives, will continue to make unreasonable demands as the MPLA clings to power. That is what has happened in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, where governments with far fewer resources than MPLA are surviving equally serious military challenges. If the MPLA does not yield quickly, Baker's logic would leave no option but to continue backing UNITA to the bitter end--and that would mean continuing the human carnage in Angola.

But the real issue is not what the United States should do to force a negotiated settlement. If that were a sufficient rationale for U.S. intervention, we would be involved in many more wars on the African continent.

Instead, the question is: Does continued support for UNITA serve U.S. interests? With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, aid cannot be said to promote or protect any significant military or economic interest. Rather, the case for continued assistance now rests entirely on the argument that in helping UNITA we are prompting a second objective of Bush's post-Cold War policy--democracy.

To prove UNITA's bona fides, its proponents cite the party's many calls for the establishment of a multiparty democracy. What they fail to mention is that most of UNITA's policy statements are written by highly paid U.S. public-relations companies with a keen eye to what sells in the U.S. political market. Opponents of authoritarian regimes invariably claim to be democratic, especially when it increases their prospects of winning external assistance; once in power, they almost always forget their earlier commitment to democracy.

A better criteria by which to judge UNITA's democratic potential is the way it conducts its own affairs. Here the evidence is clear: UNITA is a highly authoritarian party dominated by a single individual. It has no history of internal democracy.

A negotiated settlement leading to multiparty elections might end the war in Angola. No matter what the electoral result, however, it is unlikely that anything remotely resembling a liberal democracy would emerge. The preconditions necessary do not exist in Angola.

If the case for UNITA aid is so weak, why is it proving so hard to reverse this policy? One reason is the Angolan government.

As bad as UNITA may be, it is difficult to argue that the MPLA government is better. Its human-rights record is horrible; its commitment to negotiations and democracy highly suspect. At a time when the suffering of their people demand courageous and creative policies, Angolan officials appear preoccupied with political infighting in Luanda. Under these circumstances, there is an understandable reluctance in Washington to do anything that might be construed as favoring the government.

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