President Carter's Annapolis speech may not have ended the fight for influence between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and White House aide Zbigniew Brzezinski. But it settled one point decisively.
It proved that the president himself is a tyro in foreign policy, not only unpracticed in diplomacy but also without even a good working knowledge of recent history. Indeed his personal inexperience is the main reason why the tilting back and forth between advisers has generated serious misgivings in a capital that normally takes rivalry near the top for granted.
Perhaps the best example of the president's lack of grasp emerged from a list of conflicts cited in the speech to sustain a basic thesis. The thesis - which seems right to me - was that "to the Soviet Union, detente seems to mean a continuing aggressive struggle for political advantage and increased influence."
The president then went on to say that "the Soviets prefer to use proxy forces to achieve their purpose." as examples of that tactic he cited - and I am reliably informed that he personally wrote the words - what happened "in Korea, in Angola and also, as you know, in Ethiopia."
But Korea is not generally regarded as an example of a proxy war. All the leading experts in the State Department, including Carter's own appointees, concur in the judgment that the war was started and largely maintained on the motion of the North Korean strongman, Kim II Sung. Whatever the Soviet role, moreover, Korea came at the high point of cold war, not in a period of detente.
To put Korea, a major conflict that nearly touched off World War III, on the same plane as Angola denotes, in itself, a staggering lack of historical understanding - the more so as the list skips right over the Vietnam War, fueled by the Russians in some part anyway, which had a devastating effect on this country.
Angola, I think, does fit the model of Soviet use of Cuban forces to obtain, during a period of detente, an invidious advantage not even slightly justified by concerns of vital interest. It is a pure case of seeking advantage for the sake of advantage. But Ethiopia?
In that case, the United States - and, indeed, Carter personally - played the jackal, and the Russians reacted defensively. The attacking force in Ethiopa was a Somali force bent on ripping off Ogaden Province. The Russians had equipped the Somalis during the 1960s in return for a naval base at Berbera, and perhaps nursed Somali ambition to seize the Ogaden from the Ethiopia of Haile Selassie. But when the emperor was replaced by a socialist military regime, the Russians drew closer to Addis Ababa and tried to promote an understanding between Somalia and Ethiopia.
The Somalis refused, and began courting new patrons for a shot at the Ogaden. Jimmy Carter was one of their finds. On April 18, 1977, he let Time magazine overhear him telling Vice President Mondale that he wanted Vance and Brzezinski to do "everything possible to get Somalia to be our friend." A little later he told a group of editors that Somalia was one of the places where the United States could hope to replace Russia as a dominant influence.
The Somali offensive that followed in July threatened not only the Ogaden but also the ouster of the pro-Russian leadership under Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. So the Russians saw themselves losing at one stroke their stake in both Somalia and Ethiopia. Only under that duress, at close to the last moment, did they intervene through the agencies of the Cubans. It was not exactly an aggressive move.
However, the pitiful U.S. performance, welshing on apparent commitments to Somalia, did create a danger of Soviet misunderstanding. Steps have to be taken to head off that danger, and I am one of those who has pushed hard for the president to assert a strong policy.
But he does not put together a strong policy by balancing off one high official against another. Neither does he, by that tactic, communicate the policy to the Russians with clarity. All he does is keep U.S. officials off balance, thus making himself the constant arbiter of choice.
The intimate involvement in day-to-day foreign policy by a president with so little experience and grasp is dangerous. So the sensible thing for Carter would be to follow two previous presidents not overly versed in foreign policy - Truman and Eisenhower - who placed prime reliance on the secretary of state. The more so as Brzezinski has managed to make himself a red flag to moscow, and has - besides the Carter connection - only the frailest ties to the rest of the U.S. government.