The debate over U.S. policy toward Angola has taken a sharp drift toward polarization in recent weeks -- typified by the contributions to this page by Jeane Kirkpatrick (Oct. 27) and Randall Robinson (Nov. 3). In their unveiled partisanship toward the two parties in the Angolan civil war -- UNITA and MPLA -- they unintentionally increase the likelihood of a win-lose confrontation over U.S. policy. That strengthens the image abroad of a United States divided over foreign policy and, probably, extends the suffering of the Angolan people in this civil war.

The bottom line for U.S. policy on Angola should be the interests of the United States and the Angolans. And the need for peace and democracy in Angola should be manifest: not the peace of the graveyard, but the peace of a growing and open society.

Translated into policy choices, that means the U.S. government should provide aid to UNITA. Many people find this an unfashionable thought, mistakenly believing that aid to insurgents universally encourages wars. For Angola, a better case can be made that aid to UNITA is the pathway to a lasting peace.

Real understanding of the role aid might play lies in the realities in Angola. The ruling MPLA in Luanda has proven itself unable to put together a "national" government in its 10 years in nominal power. Even with the assistance of Gulf Oil on the economic side and East Bloc advisers for the rest of the government, the MPLA is a formula for bad government. But it has to be counted into the peace proc

On the other hand, UNITA is unlikely to overthrow the MPLA government. Driving 35,000 Cuban soldiers into the sea is an unlikely prospect for any black African army. Jonas Savimbi, the president of UNITA, has demonstrated his staying power and his political skills by governing roughly a third of the country. At the same time, he has unavoidably come to depend on South Africa for much of his "power of last resort" -- causing an unfortunate injection of black-white politics into Angolan politics. Still, UNITA has earned a central place in a peace proc

The challenge is to wean UNITA from South Africa and the MPLA from the Cubans. So far, the United States has talked only of getting the MPLA to change course. To be evenhanded, this country should also be proposing aid to UNITA, in order to get Savimbi to loosen his ties with South Africa. When both tracks -- with the MPLA and UNITA -- have been successful, we shall begin to see the factions for conciliation on both side willing to discuss seriously a coalition government.

What, after all, is the peace process in Angola? It is the establishment of trust between ethnic groups that have always been at odds. It is a set of careful steps meant to introduce gradually more open modes of governing. It may even involve the devolution of some powers from a potentially dictatorial central government to the various "nations" that make up Angola.

The first steps in establishing that mutual trust will have to be the elimination of Soviet and Cuban force deployments from the MPLA side and of South African forces from support of UNITA. Both can be accomplished; Washington knows that from conversations with sensible individuals on each side. But the United States will have to move to establish more tangible ties with UNITA for it to be accomplished. And its aid will have to be sufficiently open to increase, rather than reduce, the trust between Angolan factions.

We are not talking about a lot of aid. From UNITA's point of view, the amount and cost of military assistance is not a big issue. Its side of the war is not generally fought with great expenditures of hardware; much of UNITA's military supplies are captured from the MPLA. And what has to be supplied from elsewhere could be purchased from trickles of private donations and small amounts of U.S. covert aid. The United States needs to be primarily in the business of social/eco

Jonas Savimbi has major needs. For instance, food aid has not been evenly distributed in Angola, and indications of malnutrition in UNITA-held areas are simply punishment inflicted on future generations. In the peace process, as a military truce takes hold, the economy will need to be placed back on the development path.

The proposal to aid UNITA encounters great skepticism. The State Department is clearly hesitant to get involved, but apparently ready to announce its willingness to go along with some humanitarian assistance. Some people who have spent much time on the Angolan issue are doubtful that shared power can ever be achieved in such a poisoned environment. And others see American "meddling"; but would they prefer the current meddling and a continuation of the destructive warfare that Angola has known for too long?