- With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua by Christopher Dickey
Faber, 327 pp, £12.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 571 14604 X
- Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa by Fred Bridgland
Mainstream, 513 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 906391 99 7
Because Americans have never quite made up their minds about whether they want to play the role of ‘world policeman’ or to restrict themselves to policing their own hemisphere under the writ of the Monroe Doctrine, US foreign policy has changed in pendulum swings. In the post-Vietnam/post-Nixon mood which brought Jimmy Carter to the White House, it swung quite a long way against interventionism, and even conservative Republicans like California’s Governor, Ronald Reagan, fulminated against the idea of America being expected to act as policeman for the world. Sickened by exposures of Nixon’s misuse of the CIA, Congress asserted itself in the mid-Seventies, appointing its own committee to share with the Executive political control over the Agency’s operations, and passing the Clark Amendment which forbade clandestine support for movements such as Unita, the Union for the Total National Independence of Angola.
In less than a decade, but especially in the last four years, the pendulum has swung more sharply in the opposite direction than at any time since the days of John Foster Dulles. The Clark Amendment has been repealed and Congress finds itself fighting a losing rearguard action against the White House practice of bypassing its prohibition against direct CIA involvement in Nicaragua by resorting to the familiar use of conduit groups to channel funds for the recruitment of Agency personnel. The new White House policy goes far beyond the American hemisphere: in almost every corner of the globe, from Afghanistan and Cambodia to Angola and Libya, the White House – not always with the support of Congress or even of the State Department – has licensed American security agencies to engage in open or clandestine operations.
‘On three continents we see brave men and women risking their lives in anti-Communist battles for freedom,’ President Reagan said last December at a Human Rights Day ceremony. ‘We cannot and will not turn our backs on them.’ Speaking of the Contras, he said:
They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help. They are the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance. We cannot turn away from them. For the struggle here is not right versus left, but right versus wrong.
In his ‘Agenda for the Future’ address to Congress last February, the President declared: ‘We are moved by the efforts of freedom fighters such as Jonas Savimbi and the members of Unita. They deserve our support in their brave struggle against Soviet-Cuban imperialism in Angola.’
Such statements go beyond the ordinary bravado of a Rambo. They reflect what Tony Lewis of the New York Times has described as ‘the new globalism’, the ‘most important conceptual movement in American foreign policy in years’. Lewis defines this concept, deriving from ‘the ideological right’, as meaning that the US should intervene in wars in the Third World wherever there is a chance to fight Soviet or Marxist influence. Both local conditions and constraints on American power must yield to the ideological imperative. If it is thought that the Soviets are likely to remove a pro-Western ally, counter-measures must be taken to maintain the existing balance – a position described by the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Dr Chester Crocker: ‘This past year we have seen the MPLA government’ in Angola,
strongly backed by Moscow and Havana, pursue an escalation of the war. They sought to reverse two years of Unita gains and deal a body blow to the movement. They failed. It is important in our view that they continue to fail.
A distinctive feature of this ‘new globalist’ approach is its selectivity in determining which ‘freedom fighters’ deserve support. If the USSR stands to make a substantial breakthrough anywhere in Africa, it is in Ethiopia: yet there has been no support for the half-dozen serious liberation fronts in Eritrea, Tigray and Oromio engaged in fighting a bitter war to prevent a Soviet-supported regime from imposing a Marxist-Leninist system on the country. Nor has Washington rushed forward to provide aid for the ‘freedom fighters’ of South Africa and Namibia. In Washington’s eyes, the only strugglers for freedom who really count are those who are fighting in arenas of special interest to America: Unita versus the Cubans in Angola, and the Contras versus a Nicaraguan regime with links to the USSR and Cuba. One of the problems posed by this selectivity is that those who are in Washington’s good books are, ipso facto, regarded by liberals as the baddies. For example, we see the Contras as a uniform group of reactionaries fighting to reverse a ‘progressive’ regime. However, as Christopher Dickey explains in his admirable book, With the Contras, the core groups of the anti-Sandinista movement are made up of small land-holders consisting of oppressed Miskiti Indians and former Sandinista supporters (including Marxists) who believe that the revolution they supported has been betrayed. Dickey, a Washington Post correspondent who has been with the Contras almost since the beginning of their struggle and who has clearly enjoyed their confidence, is by no means uncritical of the different groups that compose their resistance movement. He is, nevertheless, outraged by the CIA’s role in selecting which of the groups to support and by the ruthless manner in which they have turned against those who do not toe Washington’s line. He is especially concerned about the way in which the Reagan Administration has deceived the American public, using the CIA to intervene directly in the Nicaraguan struggle in flagrant disregard of the Congress ban on such activities. Dickey’s exposure is meticulously documented.
The American role in Angola’s 11-year-old civil war is similarly well-described by Fred Bridgland in Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa. The struggle for power after the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1974 was resolved, not by the three rival liberation movements, but by the decisive intervention of the USSR and Cuba on the side of the Marxist-led MPLA, by the failure of American support for the anti-Marxist FNLA, led by Holden Roberto; and by the unsuccessful South African military intervention which favoured Unita. It is widely accepted that the Soviets and Cubans gained legitimacy for their intervention because it supposedly came in response to South African military intervention. This view, as I tried to show in After Angola (1976), is open to serious question. But what has remained a secret is why the South African regime decided to intervene. Beyond hinting that they had ‘a nod’ from the Americans urging them to send in their troops, Pretoria has refused to break confidence by revealing the identity of who it was in Washington who pushed them into what turned out to be a disastrous military failure. Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State at the time and who was prevented by Congress from intervening directly, has always denied being involved in Pretoria’s decision. Now, Bridgland has documented what happened. Kissinger had managed to wriggle clear of direct responsibility by getting the then US Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Moynihan, to urge the South African Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, to send troops into Angola. Washington’s wishes were also conveyed directly by the US Ambassador in Pretoria, William Bowlder, to Prime Minister Vorster.
According to Bridgland’s account, Pretoria’s intervention occurred without any previous consultation with Jonas Savimbi and was originally intended only to support the FNLA. Savimbi nevertheless welcomed it ‘because a drowning man doesn’t stop to ask whose hand is throwing out a lifeline to save his life’. Savimbi’s reliance on South Africa – which has enabled Unita to survive despite the support given to the Angolan Army by 40,000 Cuban troops and 1200 Soviet bloc military advisers – has made him a Quisling in the eyes of most Africans and many Western liberals. In his own defence, Savimbi insists that there is a coincidence of interests between Unita and South Africa. Such a coincidence is not something new in international politics: just as Stalin’s pact with Hitler and Churchill’s with Stalin did not mean that they embraced each other’s policies, Savimbi’s acceptance of support from Pretoria does not imply an endorsement of apartheid. ‘How,’ he asks, ‘can any black men like us approve of apartheid?’ He insists that he is absolutely ‘without remorse’ over his dealings with Pretoria, and accuses his Western critics of hypocrisy. ‘They say we should not take aid from South Africa for our struggle, but they will never give us aid themselves.’ As for his African critics, he says that ‘every black African state is trading with them, including the MPLA.’ Savimbi attacks his critics for ‘seeming to ask us to commit suicide, to accept being crushed by Cubans and Russians in our own country. We will not do that.’ It is of course common practice for peoples and movements to accept aid from regimes of which they strongly disapprove. Even Dr Agostinho Neto, the leader who defeated Savimbi in 1975, declared during the liberation struggle: ‘That people fighting for their independence will take aid from wherever they can find it is clear. To win our independence, we should even take aid, as they say, from the Devil himself.’
These arguments are unlikely to impress Savimbi’s critics. The authenticity of the man himself is of greater importance. Savimbi worked to obtain his doctorate in international politics from Lausanne University, after being forced to flee from Coimbra University in Portugal, where he had contacts with the clandestine Communist Party. Unlike his fellow student Neto, he was not attracted by the Communists, however. He also disagreed strongly with Che Guevara, when he met him in Dares Salaam, over the correct method of waging guerrilla struggle in Africa. He preferred the example of. Mao Dzetung. It was the Chinese who trained the first Unita commanders, but although they continued to look with favour on Unita, their aid was never significant. In the end, Unita was forced to fight on its own, and Savimbi became the only leader of the three liberation movements to wage his struggle entirely inside Angola: a position which at times forced him to co-operate with the Portuguese in fighting his rivals, though he never ceased to wage war against the Portuguese. By the time Portuguese colonialism collapsed, Savimbi had built up a considerable following based mainly on support from his Ovimbundu people, which forms the largest group of tribes in the country. A commission sent by the Organisation of African Unity to gauge the strength of the three rival liberation movements on the eve of independence concluded that, if free elections were held, Savimbi would emerge as the victor. External intervention robbed him of the chance of becoming Angola’s first president.
With the support of a limited number of allies – including Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Ivory Coast, as well as South Africa – Savimbi has succeeded in building up an army of 60,000 men. Because they enjoy enough local support, these men have been able to withstand the concerted forces of the Angolan government army, the Cuban combat troops and the Soviet bloc military advisers. In 1985, in an effort to finish Unita off, the Soviet bloc poured an estimated $2 billion of extra arms, aircraft and tanks into the country, while the Cubans increased the number of their combat troops. Their big offensive in August came so close to success that only the intervention of the South African Air Force could thwart it. It was Unita’s near-escape from defeat that led to the American decision earlier this year to supply direct military aid to Savimbi.
Like all civil wars, Angola’s has been brutal, and it has progressively destroyed the country’s economy. What now seems clear is that neither side can achieve a military victory – a view endorsed by Savimbi himself. Only a political settlement, leading to a coalition government between MPLA and Unita, can provide a way out of this costly impasse. There have been sporadic talks between the two sides but they have not advanced very far. While the American decision to side openly with Savimbi will reduce his heavy dependence on Pretoria, it is also bound to spur Moscow to increase its aid to the MPLA. It is unlikely, therefore, that there will ever be a political settlement unless both super-powers want one, though such a settlement would not bring peace only to the Angolans but would mean the withdrawal of Cuban troops and would thus remove the lab obstacle still standing in the way of Namibian independence. While Moscow might have been expected to look with favour on an opportunity to extricate itself from an unwinnable war, however, it is much less likely to concede a victory to Reagan’s ‘new globalist’ policy. The poor suffering Angolans may therefore have to wait until there is a new incumbent in the White House and the pendulum of American foreign policy once again begins to swing away from the idea of America as the world’s policeman.