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Next Stop, Angola

Six Questions for the Reagan Doctrine.

The next battlefield over the so-called Regan Doctrine is the decade-old consensus that America should stay out of the civil war in Angola. Based on the belief that the United States should assist anti-Communist freedom fighters everywhere, elements within the Reagan administration and in Congress are urging that the U.S. supply as much as $200 million in aid to Jonas Savimbi's anti-Marxist guerrilla group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Indeed, advocates of the Reagan Doctrine assert that not to support UNITA is to signal diminished support for anti-Communist movements elsewhere.

How the wheel has turned. In the 1950s and 1960s, American foreign policymakers wondered how best to oppose wars of national liberation. Today they wonder which war of national liberation the United States should support.

The Reagan Doctrine would have us answer: "all of them." The problem this doctrine addresses is a serious one. Since 1975 Communist or Marxist regimes have come to power in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Grenada, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Suriname. Proponents of the Reagan Doctrine aim to reverse the Soviet Union's gains—but not by deploying American forces. That would be strongly opposed by Congress and the country. (Grenada is the exception that proves the rule.) Rather, the doctrine calls for hoisting the Soviet Union on its own petard by providing support to resistance forces that have sprung up in Marxist-dominated Third World countries. These groups, it is believed, can mount a serious challenge to Soviet-supported regimes and help to shift the "global correlation of forces" in favor of the United States.

The Reagan Doctrine has surefire appeal to those frustrated by the decline in American power over the past four decades. But it is far from obvious that it will advance U.S. interests. The case of Angola demonstrates why the Reagan Doctrine may be less appealing in practice than in theory.

Opposition to the Reagan Doctrine should not be equated with the reflexive rejection of American military involvement abroad, which prevailed after the U.S. disengagement from Vietnam. If conservatives are overreacting to our debacle in Southeast Asia by encouraging anti-Communist insurgencies everywhere, liberals should not automatically oppose American military involvement anywhere. U.S. foreign policy will be best served by addressing some basic questions before deciding how to treat a Third World anti-Communist insurgency. These questions are not all equally important, nor do we need favorable answers to all of them in order to proceed. But at least in the case of Angola, the answers add up to a definite no.

First, we need to ask: What are the central policy objectives of the United States in the area in question? Concerning Angola, our primary aims are to secure the withdrawal of the 30,000 Cuban troops, and the adoption of an internationally recognized settlement of the conflict in Namibia, where South Africa is using the presence of Cuban troops in Angola as an excuse to continue its illegal occupation. A troop withdrawal would reduce the East-West dimension of the conflict in southern Africa. A Namibian settlement would end one of the last vestiges of colonialism and a threat to stability in southern Africa.   

Second, What is the best way to achieve our objectives? If Angola were unwilling to reduce or remove the Cuban troops, a case might be made for American support for UNITA. But the Luanda government has been relatively forthcoming on this issue. In return for South Africa's withdrawing its forces from Namibia and ending its support for Savimbi, Angola has expressed a willingness to remove two-thirds of the Cuban troops within three years and assure that none of those remaining is stationed within 1,000 miles of the South African border. If serious negotiations between Angola and South Africa on Namibia were resumed, it is entirely conceivable that Luanda would agree to an even greater and more rapid withdrawal of Cuban forces.

By providing support for Jonas Savimbi, the United States would simply increase Angola's dependence on the Cubans. Rather than allow UNITA to overthrow the Angolan government, Cuba would most likely dispatch more troops to Angola in order to shore up the Luanda regime. Reaching a Namibian settlement, not aiding UNITA, is thus the more promising path to securing the withdrawal of the Cubans. The roadblocks to such a withdrawal are to be found in Pretoria rather than Luanda. South Africa continues to occupy Namibia in defiance of international law. Its contemptuous rejection of Angola's proposal demonstrates that, for Pretoria, the Cuban troop presence is not its major concern.

Third, How do our friends in the region view U.S. support for the insurgency? South Africa and Zaire are the only countries in Africa that support UNITA. The others do not believe that the insurgency will contribute to a lasting peace. For the United States to support Savimbi in implicit alliance with South Africa would make us appear oblivious at best and complicit at worst in South Africa's efforts to destabilize its neighbors. It would also quickly wear out the welcome with which most of Africa greeted the sanctions President Reagan, under pressure from Congress, recently imposed against the apartheid regime.

Fourth, How closely tied to the Soviet Union is the regime that the insurgency is challenging? Obviously, our chances of having an even minimally cooperative relationship with Angola—on Namibia, trade, and other issues—depend on how tight the ties are between the Luanda regime and the Soviet bloc. Despite its dependence on Moscow and Havana under current circumstances, the current government does have an independent identity and some freedom of action. If, in the context of a Namibia settlement, it asked the Cubans to leave, there is every reason to believe they would do so.

Fifth, What are the prospects that the insurgency will achieve its goals, with or without American aid? The truth is that even with American aid, UNITA has little chance of overthrowing the MPLA regime. Moreover, in stimulating increased Soviet aid and an augmented Cuban presence, American assistance would lead to a new stalemate at a higher level of violence. 

Sixth, Would achievement of the insurgency's objectives result in a major improvement in the condition of the Angolan people? Advocates of American intervention in Angola assert that a UNITA victory would bring a new birth of freedom. Yet Jonas Savimbi's background and beliefs belie the feverish attempts of his American backers to paint him as an African James Madison. He has described his own political philosophy as Marxist, with a preference for the Chinese system. So even if he were to triumph, the prospects for any genuine political pluralism are hardly encouraging. 

Indeed, beneath the veneer of Western ideologies is the reality of a tribal rivalry in which the Ovinbundu people led by UNITA are arrayed against the Luanda people represented by the MPLA.

A similar evaluation of ends and means can lead to a different conclusion in other countries where insurgents have taken up arms against Communist rule. But in any situation, the simple fact that insurgents are battling a Soviet-supported government is not a good enough reason to support them.

In Afghanistan, the central U.S. interests are to secure the withdrawal of the Soviet forces that invaded in December 1979, and to restore to the Afghan people the self-determination that the current puppet regime cannot provide. Because Moscow has yet to demonstrate the flexibility necessary for a negotiated settlement, the pressure to bargain seriously must be increased. The political and diplomatic leverage that has been applied, though helpful, has been insufficient to induce the Soviets to adopt a more forthcoming approach in U.N.-sponsored negotiations. Clearly, military pressure through aid to the mujahadeen is necessary to increase the costs the Soviet Union must bear for its occupation. Even if the Soviets choose to continue the struggle, however, it is essential that they be required to pay as high a price as possible, if only to discourage them from invading other countries in the future.

In Cambodia, Vietnam is willing to discuss only a negotiated settlement that legitimizes its occupation and the puppet regime it installed. And the morally discredited Khmer Rouge could very easily return to power in Phnom Penh in the event of a Vietnamese withdrawal without a third force to forestall it. Under those circumstances, it is appropriate for the United States to join China and our allies in Southeast Asia in providing support for the growing non-Communist resistance forces. The effect will be to raise the price that Hanoi and its Soviet backers have to pay, thus making a negotiated settlement more likely while helping to create a credible alternative to the Khmer Rouge if Vietnam finally agrees to withdraw. In the meantime, our ally Thailand is left more secure, since the Vietnamese, tied down in Cambodia, will find it more difficult to build a platform for expansion across the Thai-Cambodian border.

One problem with U.S. policy in Nicaragua is that the Reagan administration is disingenuous about its policy objectives. There's reason to suspect that the real goal is the overthrow of the Sandinista regime. If so, most credible analysts believe that even with American support the contras are unequal to that task.

Some argue, drawing analogies to Afghanistan and Cambodia, that support for the contras does serve our acknowledged goal of pressuring the Sandinistas to resolve their differences with other Central American countries. But unlike Afghanistan and Cambodia, where most of our friends support American assistance to the insurgents, most of the countries of Latin America are opposed to our support for the contras.   

Furthermore, Nicaragua has already demonstrated flexibility about the Cantadora peace process, including a willingness to send home Cuban military advisers, to prohibit the establishment of Soviet or Cuban bases, and to refrain from supporting insurgencies elsewhere in the region. The Sandinistas may in fact be willing to conclude a solid, verifiable agreement, in return for an agreement from the United States and our friends in Central America neither to invade Nicaragua nor to assist insurgencies against it.

Reagan Doctrine enthusiasts rarely make clear whether their objective is to promote democracy or to defeat communism. Obviously, the emergence of pluralism and democracy in Nicaragua would be desirable. But there is no guarantee that the triumph of the contras, who are commanded by former officers of Somoza's National Guard and who have been accused of serious human rights violations, would result in a more pluralistic political system. And if democracy is our principal objective in Nicaragua, why should we not support antigovernment forces in Chile, Haiti, and other repressive regimes? If the Reagan Doctrine is to become a rallying cry for those fighting for freedom—regardless of whether they oppose tyranny of the left or repression on the right—it will soon lead us into a military quagmire where we end up in a de facto state of war with dozens of dictatorial governments around the world.  

If the goal is simple anticommunism, similar quandaries arise. If the United States should support existing anti-Communist insurgencies, why not promote the creation of resistance movements where none exist? If we should support insurgencies against countries that have gone Communist since 1975, why not countries that fell before then? We have relatively friendly relations China and Yugoslavia, borne largely of a mutual distrust of Moscow. Should there ever be armed opposition to those governments, the Reagan Doctrine would dictate support.

Advocating material support for anti-Communist movements is downright dangerous when it comes to Eastern Europe. Over the years both peaceful and armed opposition movements have risen against orthodox Communist regimes. Yet for Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland din 1981, American presidents adopted a basically hands-off policy. The reason was simple. However much the United States sympathized with the partisans of freedom, assisting their cause would have been perceived in Moscow as a direct challenge to Soviet security and might have brought the two superpowers to the brink of war for the sake of uncertain gains. 

The high priests and acolytes of the far right may believe that global interventionism is the price of freedom. We can only hope that President Reagan is more pragmatic than the doctrine that bears his name.

Stephen J. Solarz was a United States Congressman, representing New York's 13th District from 1975-1993. He was also a visiting professor of international relations at George Washington University and the co-chairman of the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus.