African strategy is turning into a "loose cannon ball" for policy markers in the Kremlin as well as in the Carter administration, as old patterns of ailgnment collapse.
The African continent is now the most volatile, unpredictable region of the world, American specialists agreed in recent interviews.
For the moment, Carter administration strategists are quite pleased with themselves over the most recent flip-flop of developments, especially in Zaire. An American "low posture paid-off in Zaire," one U.S. planner said with satisfaction, as other nations, notably France and Morocco, picked up the burden of repelling a numerically small, but potent challenge to the survival of that extremely fragile, pro-Western nation.
Zaire is "by no means over the hump - all the old problems are still there," said one American official, "but it still intact."
Even the eviction order served last month on the bulk of the American diplomatic and military establishment in Ethiopia caused no great dismay in official Washington.
If Carter administration strategists are right, recently Marxist Ethiopia, an old enemy of Soviet client Somali, will turn into more of "a basket case" than a geopolitical asset for its new friends in the Kremlin.
Suddenly, it is the Soviet Union that is sounding more alarmed than the United States about Africa, where Soviet policy had been riding the crest of "wars and national liberation" in recent years.
The Soviet Union is registering concern for the newest pro-Marxist state in sub-Saharan Africa, Angola.
The Kremlin claims that the 1,500 Moroccan troops and French military advisers brought in to stiffen ineffective Zaire troops against the "Katanga gendarmes" who crossed over from Angola March 8, now represent "a real threat to the People's Republic of Angola and other peace-loving countries of this region. . ."
On its face, the Soviet alarm would appear greatly exaggerated. There still remain in Angola an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 Cuban troops, reinforced by Soviet equipment, one of the strongest combat forces in Africa. Last year they crushed Western-supported factions in Angola's civil war to win a resounding victory for Agostinho Neto's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
And yet, despite the lopsided Marxist advantage in fighting capacity on opposite sides of the Angola-Zaire border, the Soviet Union evidently is troubled. Why? It might become entangled, U.S. strategists point out, if the suddenly-emboldened forces on the Zaire side should decide to engage in "hot pursuit" of the border-crossing "Katangan gendarme" intruders back across Angolan territory.
In North Africa, Soviet disquiet is soaring almost daily over a larger-scale danger. It is described by the Kremlin as the risk of "an open clash" between Egypt, its one-time client, and Libya now the Soviet Union's cheif client and the most erratic state in the region.
"If Egypt embarked on a military venture against Libya," the soviet Union has said with mounting apprehension, "this would lead to a new and serious degree of tension in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Africa."
Above all, the Soviet Union has told Arab nation, "a new military clash among Arabs in the Arab world . . . would divert their attention from the main task - that is, the struggle to eliminate the effects of the Israeli aggression."
This does not mean that American strategists see a dangerfree road ahead in Africa for Carter administration policy, or even a prepondeance of advantages over the Soviet Union.
Minefields loom in all directions for U.S. planners as well.
The latest British-American vesture in applying diplomacy to the black-white struggle in Rhodesia is still groping for a foothold - with the odds against heading off a guerrilla war, some U.S. planners privately concede. Similar attempts to produce a peaceful transition to black majority rule in Namibia (South-West Africa) are equally clouded, and punctuated by gunfire. By backing the most militant forces, the Soviet Union seemingly has the least to lose, whatever the outcome.
Soviet power and influence remain predominant in the stragegic Horn of Africa, astride the shipping lane to the Red Sea. Throughout the continent the Soviet Union is the prime arms supplier to the nationalist guerrillas who seek majority rule through violence in Rhodesia, Namibia, and the former Spanish Sahara, among others.
American strategists, nevetheless, at least fleetingly, are indulging the belief that the combination of factors which suddenly converged "to keep Zaire from going down the drain" holds promise for the future in Africa.
African moderate nations, Arab moderates, plus France, Belgium, and West Germany found common interest with the United States in keeping afloat the regime of Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko.
There is widespread belief, or suspicion, that the United States "master-minded" the strategy. "In fact," said one senior U.S. planner, "nobody masterminded it, because no one nation controlled what was happening."
France, which airlifted French advisers and 1,500 Morocan troops into Zaire to turn the tide, would be the first to deny indignantly that it was operating on an American design.
. . . In Africa," French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing proudly declared at the recent French African summit conference in Dakar, "France more than any country, is the one that makes decisions, the one capable of producing a genuine policy in Africa. . ."
What helped to make the French-Moroccan role in Zaire possible was that the United States did not seek, and could not play, a dominant role. The reason for that was the legacy of the Angola war, where Congress, fearful of "another Vietnam," in December, 1975, cut off originally clandestine Central Intelligence Agency support for pro-Western factions after the outlay reached $30 million.
As one result, the Zaire conflict did not become polarized into a major proxy war of the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States limited itself to relatively modest "nonlethal equipment" for Zaire, in large part because Congress would tolerate nothing more.
"We ran a policy that had a little bit of sophistication and nuance," said a senior U.S. official. "We did not take steps which we could not sustain with the public and in Congress . . . No arms, no advisers; no platoons. You can't do that any more."
The Soviet Union was left on the defensive propagandistically, angrily denying that it or Cuba was supporting "an invasion" of Zaire and bitterly protesting that instead, the "imperialist monopolies" hungering for Zaire, "a country of colossal natural resources," were suppressing "a popular uprising."
"When you get whupped," retored one U.S. strategist drily, "you scream."
What needs remembering about the unfinished Zaire episode is that militarily minuscule force of border-crossers, 2,500 at most, seriously threatened to topple one of the largest nations of Africa, as big as the United States east of the Mississippi River - and almost succeeded.
Because of tribal ties, the former residents of Katanga (now Shaba) Province were welcomed by many Zairean villagers. That raised a real threat of cutting off the copper mining resources, which was the economic geographically exposed as Zaire. It has nine countries on its borders. Few underdeveloped nations are so precuriously in debt - Zaire's totals about $3 billion.
What rallied other African nations to Zaire's aid was the pervasive African fear that however illogical are the original European-colonialist national boundaries, which ignored tribal divisions, any tampering with them can loose a continent-wide hemorrhage.
There are still divided views among American specialists about what prompted the sending of the so-called former Katanga gendarmes across the Angola border to Zaire, and the degree of Cuban and Soviet planning behind it.
At least in part, it was retaliation by Angola, which suspected that Zaire was continuing to support the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FLNA) in forays against Angola, despite Mobutu's disclaimers. Many U.S. strategists are convinced the Zaire cross-border planning was done by Cubans; others are unsure and many question "whether the Russians were even in on this," although Soviet small arms were used. "There is a great intelligence gap here," one U.S. official said.
But what is undisputed is that the Zaire conflict, if it can be called that for the small amount of fighting involved, had a magnet-like effect on many other nations.
China, a loser in Angola, along with the United States, South Africa, France and others, joined in supplying aid to Mobutu's government, to sustain its own ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union.
Morocco's King Hassan II offered multiple reasons for sending 1,500 elite troops into Zaire with 1,500 more available if needed. One of the least-stated reasons was Morocco's own troubles with the Polisario Front, guerrillas trained by Cubans who seek an independent Marxist state in the former Spanish Sahara ceded to Morocco and Spain.
Among the reasons for Morocco's move cited by Hassan was Arab solidarity with Sudan, which borders on Zaire, and which contains the headwaters of the Nile. That in turn helps account equally for Egypt's as well as Saudi Arabia's support of Zaire.
Saudi Arabia's massive oil wealth and fear of communism was the most important single factor in the convergence of Arab support for Zaire. "The key," said one U.S. planner, "is Saudi Arabia and what they are doing with their money."
Egypt, which has switched its superpower reliance from the Soviet Union to the United States, is now reacting strongly to what it sees as encircling Soviet danger all round its periphery.
As for the European nations, in addition to France with its special links to French-speaking countries throughout North and West Africa, Belgium also has large economic stakes in Zaire, the former Belgian Congo. West Germany, with its own African interests, also joined in aiding the Mobutu government.
France, in addition, is now more prepared than ever to retain an active presence in Djibouti, when the strategic French territory of the Afars and Assas in the Horn of Africa gains its independence in June. The United States signaled its own rising interest in that region by opening a consulate general in Djibouti last week, to be converted into an embassy in June.
Among Carter administration policy makers on Africa, there are many assessments about what the Zaire episode projects for the future.
Most would agree with Princeton political scientists Manfred Halpern that in Africa "a great breaking" of familiear, or even recent, relationships in under way.
One senior U.S. diplomat said, "The disunity of the nonradical African states is being remedied in a sense - they are getting worried." He said "all the old-time leaders, watching the floundering around, realize that they can lose a lot."
Another said, "There is not necessarily a new pattern, but a manifestation of a genuine pattern of African nationalism. I think the Russians are being clumsy," and, "The African nationalists play us both off."
Said another planner:
"The obsession with Soviet ambitions in Africa, which drove Henry's [former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger] policy, is just one of the items on the list. The key difficulty is that even if the Soviets weren't there, the danger of black-white warfare is clearly against our interests.
"We can support nationalists; we don't need puppet regimes. But there is no effective regional organization, and relatively powerless nations can only maintain independence when they band together."
Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, said, "What we're seeing is a shift of alliances and friendships."
In "the Kissinger period", until his change of African policy in early 1976, after Angola, Clark said, "we 'tilted' toward the white minorities," leaving the Soviet Union to exploit "natural advantages" as the champions of black nationalism.
"In the Horn," Clark said, "our traditional ally was Ethiopia. Now we're beginning to look in a broader sense to the other countries in the Horn - first and foremost to Sudan and Egypt - who have a common enemy - (Libya's) Quaddafi. The Saudis are trying to get Somalia weaned away from the Soviets, through money, and talk.
"In southern Africa, we are developing reliance on the 'frontline states' - Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, for whatever it can do, and to the degree that we can do it, Mozambique," Clark said.
"I hope this is the beginning," he said, "of a shift away from Mobutu as the central African ally, and increasing identification with the frontiline states and with the people of South Africa."