On May 4, in the anteroom of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Central Intelligence Agency Director Stansfield Turner showed Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa) a written plan for secretly supplying U.S. arms, through France, to guerrilla forces fighting against the government of Angola. The plan, according to Turner, was under discussion in the National Security Council, the highest foreign-policymaking body of the U.S. government.
In Paris on June 14, six weeks later, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance approved a diametrically opposite plan for dealing with Angola. After White House clearance and discussions with European allies, Vance authorized a senior American diplomat to visit the Angolan capital of Luanda to improve lines of communication and cooperation with that Soviet and Cuban-backed government.
The Turner plan to destabilize the Angolan regime and thus "tie down" some of the estimated 20,000 Cuban troops there was sponsored by presidential national security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, according to authoritative sources. It is not being implemented, due to the opposition of Clark and to legislative restrictions previously sponsored by him on U.S. involvement in the Angolan civil war.
The Vance plan to work with the Angolan regime through open diplomatic means is the one that is being implemented. This weekend U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry is in Luanda for talks with President Agostinho Neto.
The two programs of action in Angola - and the results - capture in summary and symbolic form a Washington policy struggle of the past two months centered on Africa. By common judgment in the foreign affairs community, Brzezinski has lost and Vance has won. But there is no consensus on the nature or details of the contest between divergent tendencies within the government, or on the significance of the outcome.
The lodestar of policy toward Africa from the earliest days of the Carter presidency has been emphasis on diplomatic and economic efforts to deal with African problems in their African context and deemphasis on East West confrontations.
Beginning in early May the rhetoric, some of the planning and much of the implied future direction shifted almost 180 degrees toward a hard anticommunist position. When this approach generated public apprehension and the determined opposition of some of Carter's closest Capitol Hill allies, the policy orientation swung back again nearly to its original point.
"The period was an aberration," said a senior State Department official involved in the era of uncertainly.
"The rhetoric changed and then changed back again, but implementation of policy remained pretty much the same," said another State Department man.
According to another administration insider with a good view of the going-on. "We just had a swing of the pendulum. It swung so far that it struck Jimmy Carter in the side of the head."
Still another inside commentary on the events. "As we were moving along this thoughtful path we were getting goosed by the Russians and the Cubes - that's what Brezinski calls 'em - all the time. So we had to go over to the side of the road for a little fisticuffs. But now we're back on the path."
Among the factors that contributed to the swing toward a harder anticommunist policy in Africa were the increasing activity of the Soviet-Cuban military combination, especially the swift buildup in Ethiopia; the apprehensions of U.S. allies, particularly the French, Iranians and Saudi Arabians about the specter of spreading communist influence; the May 12-13 invasion by exile soliders living in Angola across the border into Zaire's rich Shaba Province; the sharply declinning domestic political fortunes of President Carter, as measured in public opinion polls, and the frustration of Brzezinski, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and other strategically minded policy operatives at the seeming impotence of the United States against a new sort of overseas challenge.
Contributing to the return of the pendulum toward what Vance calls a "possitive" and "affirmative" U.S. policy in Africa were:
The formidable legislative and political barriers to the use of U.S. arms or military might on the continent;
Strong misgivings of conservatives as well as liberals in Congress and public life about becoming involved in "another Vietnam" in Africa;
The positin of most mainline African states, including a public lecture through the assembled diplomatic corps and three confidential messages to Carter from Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, one of the most influential of the African continent's leaders;
The pratical difficulties of working through the corrupt and often ineffective government of Zaire;
And three messages, including a private letter expressing an interest in improved relations, from Angolan President Agostinbo Neto.
Perhaps the most important single consideration, according to several observers of the policy process, was that in the absence of covert operations in Africa or credible strategic threats against the Soviet Union and Cuba, there was no feasible way to back up anticommunist rhetoric with deeds which could deal effectively with the problem.
On the other hand, the proponents of the "Africanist" policy of forbearance and negotiations came up with a practical program of political initiatives to suggest.
This set of facts is the reality behind the current State Department refrain that, whatever the rhetoric, the implementation of African policy has been consistent throughout the Carter adminstration.
Because the crucial decision-making took place at the highest level of the U.S. government and Vance has issued orders that there is to be no "pounding the chest" about what happened, it is not known whether there was ever a head-to-head showdown between Vance and Brzezinski. Subordinates say that there was not, despite unconfirmed reports to the contrary.
His assistants report that the usually ebullient Brzezinski, whose sharp-tongued public attacks on the Soviets made newspaper headlines and magazine covers earlier this month, has become muted and unusually retiring. In a White House briefing for 75 members of Congress last Tuesday night, "the hard liner," as Carter referred to him with a grin, took a deferential role and limited his remarks to his recent trip to China.
Vance, on the other hand, could only shrug his shoulders helplessly when queried about the covert action explorations in early May and in apparent frustration, privately applauded British Prime Minister James Callaghan's caustic remark in early June that a number of amateurish "Christopher Columbuses" in the United States are discovering Africa for the first time.
Now the usually retiring secretary of state has captured the limelight, and, early last week, in public speech and the private White House briefing, emerged as the authorized spokesman for the newly affirmed African policy.
The plan for a resumption of covert aid to antigovernment fighters in Angola, presented by CIA chief Turner to Sen. Clark on May 4, had reportedly been pressed within the government for many months by Brzezinski, but the authority for the trial balloon on Capitol Hill is uncertain.
Turner recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in closed session that he was authorized to present the plan by Brzezinski and the Security Consultative Committee (SCC) of the National Security Council, and that Carter knew nothing of the idea in advance. On the other hand, a participant in the African discussions of the SCC said such a plan was never discussed at its meetings.
Experienced Washington hands have expressed grave doubt that a CIA director would discuss such a potentially explosive proposal on Capitol Hill without presidential authorization. Researchers of the public record noted that on May 4 - the day Turner broke the covert action plan to Clark - Carter was asked at a news conference in Portland, Ore., about a South African raid, also the same day, into Angola.
He replied by noting that Congress had placed limits on U.S. involvement in Angola and that he agreed. Carter brought up Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi (whose forces Turner proposed to aid through France.) The president said Savimbi receives aid from other countries but not from the United States and that "we have no intention to intercede in any war in Angola."
Whether or not Carter knew anything about the covert action plan in advance, it is clear that he heard about Clark's conclusion - after researching the legislation he had sponsored in 1976 - that aid to Savimbi through a third country would be illegal.
A few days after Clark's conclusion was reported by Turner to the White House, Carter began complaining of congressional restrictions on his freedom of action abroad. A major restriction, which he cited repeatedly in private meetings, was the Clark amendment on covert aid in Angola.
In this atmosphere of frustration about the inability of the United States to counter Soviet and Cuban efforts in Angola and Ethiopia, the cross-border raid beginning May 12-13 into Zaire by Lunda tribesmen, or Katangans, based in Angola was both a calamity and an unexpected opportunity.
By dispatching U.S. military transports to fly French and Belgian troops into stricken Shaba Province starting May 18, the United States could demonstrate its ability to act. And any evidence or indications of Cuban complicity would place that country's forces, for the first time, on the wrong side of the revered African principle of territorial integrity.
It was May 19, at a White House meeting to discuss the public presentation of the U.S. airlift, that a CIA representative claimed to have information that Cubans had "recently" trained the Katangans who attacked Shaba Province. This was announced the same day, at White House instructions, by State Department spokesman Tom Reston, to the apparent surprise of Vance.
The same CIA report, now being bolstered by top-priority demands for confirmation, was the basis of a statement prepared for Carter by a State Department-White House committee May 24 and 25 and issued by the president May 25 in a Chicago news conference. Those who prepared the statement were reportedly instructed to take a very tough line against the Cubans, and Carter came down hard with charges of Angolan and Cuban responsibility for Zaire's woes.
Brzezinski, on "Meet the Press" May 28, was tougher yet, bluntly accusing Moscow of worldwide activities incompatible "with the code of detente" and calling Cuban military activities in Africa "intolerable to international peace." Declaring that Soviet-Cuban activities ought not to be "cost free," Brzezinski presented a philosophical justification for covert action in such places as Angola.
Brzezinski's passion and prominence rang alarm bells in political Washington and throughout the world, and together with the usual tough rhetoric associated with a North American Treaty Organization ministerial meeting - taking place here that week - gave the impression of rapid U.S. mobilization for much stronger measures.
Brzezinski also took an extremely hard public line on negotiations in the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT), leading to the growing belief that SALT was being linked to Africa.
Carter is reported to have been displeased and somewhat startled by the polarization and alarm that followed the Brzezinski appearance. Insiders note that Brzezinski has not appeared on such a network interview program since, and is not scheduled to do so. (Carter is said to be cracking down on "uncoordinated" appearances of high officials in prominent places.)
To deal with the growing public concern, Carter decided to deliver his own policy speech at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation. And in the private discussions with his principal advisers to prepare his speech, Carter began to call for a unified and positive policy and to display irritation with divisive rhetoric.
Some officials who heard of the president's remarks - and who were increasingly uncomfortable with the Brzezinski hard line - were secretly heartened. Several high officials now recognize the pre-Annapolis discussions as the beginning of the reining in of Brzezinski, although tough anti-Soviet rhetoric in the speech itself merely sharpened the sense of impending confrontation.
In terms of practical policy toward Zaire and the closely related question of Angola, a series of high level meetings had already begun to separate rhetoric from practical reality.
At a White House meeting May 26, before a working dinner that night with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, it had been decided that the United States and European nations would have to take a very tough stand with Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko if there were any chance to rescue that country.
With French help, this decision was implemented in June 5-6 meetings in Paris and June 13-14 meetings in Brussels of the U.S. and European backers of Zaire.
Strict conditions would be required on all aid, even surplus food. And, in an effort to relieve military pressure on Shaba as quickly as possible, one of the requirements would be Zairian willingness to negotiate a border truce with neighboring Angola.
The more the policymakers looked at the problems, the more important an agreement with Angola became to the stability of Zaire. Angola was already of vital importance to the future of Namibia, the South African territory just to the south, which is nearing independence amid Western efforts to bring about a peaceful transition from white to black rule.
"Front line" presidents of black states in southern Africa met with leaders of the Namibian Liberation movement, SWAPO, in the Angolan capital June 10-11 and sent word that they were willing to continue working for a negotiated settlement. Angolan President Neto sent a private message to Washington also stressing his desire for contact with the United States and his interest in stabilizing the border with Zaire.
According to informed officials, Brzezinski did not object to the tough conditions on Zaire or the decision to open more normal contact with Angola. "Zbig saw the landscape" and had no choice, said a senior administration official. He added that Brzezinski had no alternatives to offer.
The decision had been made late in May that Vance would deliver an Africa policy speech in mid-June following his return from consultations in Europe. In early June, following an unusually strong letter to Carter from members of the House International Relations Committee, expressing dismay about U.S. policy, Vance was also assigned to make a comprehensive statement to put down the Capitol Hill jitters.
Vance worked on both the House committee statement and the Africa speech while returning from Europe Saturday, June 17. Both statements, much more moderate in tone and substance than Brzezinski's rhetoric and some of Carter's recent utterances, were approved by Brzezinski and Carter with few suggested changes. Vance was authorized by Carter to announce that he was speaking for the president as well as himself.
Just as few could predict how far the previous hard-line antiSoviet rhetoric would take U.S. policy, so the permanence of Vance's relative moderation is difficult to judge. In a speech Friday in hawkish Fort Worth, Tex., Carter said, "We're not going to let the Soviet Union push us around," and defended Brzezinski against detractors.
Having permitted a switch in private and public signals and a switch back again, Carter's record for constancy in Africa policy is unimpressive to governmental observers.
One shrewd and well-placed official said Vance will be the voice of American policy, if he is not countermanded by another voice with opposing views from high places.
It is a fact of major importance in the public and political reaction to Carter's hawkishness that the area was Africa, several officials said. Virtually no American politicians are prepared to call that continent vital to the United States. Rep. E. de la Garza (D-Tex.) is believed to have spoken for many when he stood up at the White House Tuesday night and declared that people in his district didn't even know where these African countries are, and would never support U.S. intervention.
A great deal depends on events outside the control of Carter or any of his panoply of advisers. Soviet hostility or local circumstances could cause troublesome problems in almost any region, without much warning. Nobody guessed a year ago that the Carter administration' foreign affairs shakedown, and the dizzying turn of the free-swinging compass, would be in policy toward Africa.