A chance to change cold war doctrine in Angola

September 30, 1990|By Gerald J. Bender | Gerald J. Bender,Gerald J. Bender, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California, writes frequently on Angola.

Congress is engaged in a historic post-cold war debate. It will decide whether the instruments of the "Reagan doctrine" are still the most appropriate means for solving conflicts in the Third World -- in this case, Angola.

Despite increased cooperation between Washington an Moscow in the Persian Gulf, Central America and other parts of the world, sterile, cold war rhetoric still dominates the Angola debate, in Congress, in the State Department and in the White House.

Both the House and Senate are scheduled to debate this week whether the United States should increase its covert military aid to the Angolan rebels, known as UNITA, which has opposed the government (and the ruling party, known by its Portuguese acronym, the MPLA) on the battlefield the past 15 years.

(Both UNITA, backed by the United States and South Africa, and the MPLA, backed by the Soviets, fought to make Angola, a former Portuguese colony, independent. After independence in 1974, the MPLA became the governing party.)

Washington has an excellent opportunity to help foster peace in Angola but, if the debate is narrowly confined to whether or not arms should be sent immediately to UNITA, the United States will remain part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The Angolan war has claimed an estimated 340,000 lives. At least 250,000 civilians are believed at imminent risk of starvation from the war and a drought that affects half the country. Andrew Natsios, director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, just back from Angola, describes the situation as "the worst in Africa," even worse than in Ethiopia.

It is time for political courage and imagination to stop the killing and starvation. Sticks and carrots should be applied equally toward the contending sides. The thrust of American policy should be not to prolong the war but to encourage progress toward peace and national reconstruction.

Military aid to UNITA began under the "Reagan doctrine" of confronting Soviet-backed governments as "leverage" to encourage the government to send Cuban combat troops home. Now that roughly 80 percent of the Cubans have left Angola (all are scheduled to be gone by July), the Bush administration has moved the goal posts. Military aid to UNITA must continue, the administration argues, until national reconciliation is achieved. Can national reconciliation be truly achieved anywhere at the point of a gun?

A second rationale for arms to UNITA has been to assure that the movement, led by Jonas Savimbi, will not be crushed militarily. Every fall, since the lifting of the Clark Amendment (prohibiting U.S. covert aid to Angola) in 1985, UNITA and its impressive Washington lobbyists have sounded the alarm of an impending major government offensive. This, they argued, required increased arms from Washington. Some years there were attacks, and other years there was no offensive.

Once again the alarm is being sounded. This time the MPLA assault is supposed to originate from Namibia.

A prudent U.S. policy should focus on the goal of preventing an offensive through diplomacy rather than on supplying arms. While working on the diplomatic front, the United States could suspend all arms shipments to Angola unless there is clear evidence of an MPLA buildup for an offensive. If this occurs, the arms supply to UNITA could be resumed or even increased.

In the meantime, there is no danger that UNITA could be defeated. On the contrary, many commentators argue that UNITA has seized the military initiative. During my stay in Luanda in September, UNITA again knocked out the capital's power and water supplies. Some fear that additional military aid to UNITA will encourage them to seek further military victories rather than peace. Is this what the administration really wants?

Washington has never tried to use "carrots" in Angola to try to influence the behavior of the government. The United States should try to encourage government moves toward democracy by promising some carrots, such as recognition and economic aid. If the MPLA fails to earn the carrots, military aid to UNITA can be renewed.

The United States has frequently urged Luanda to adopt a multiparty democratic system. The MPLA government has said that this will be done at its party congress in December. It was at a similar party congress last year that the ruling party in Mozambique dropped all references to Marxism and opted for a multiparty system.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is the type of leader with whom Washington can easily work. His tolerance for criticism and human rights exceeds that of most U.S. allies in Africa. We have seen dramatic changes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America over the past year which the United States has supported in positive ways. Are we not capable of doing the same in Angola?

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