Jonas Savimbi, that charismatic African gentleman, has been making political and journalistic rounds in this city for the past week, all to an end Savimbi does not disguise: he wants us involved -- on his side -- in Angola's civil war.
If he gets his way, it would be the sort of exercise that John Quincy Adams identified as "going abroad in search of monsters to destroy." But monster-hunters are very much in evidence in Washington just now.
Angola, the former Portuguese colony in southern Africa, is of more than passing interest to armchair strategists. It shares a border with Namibia, which is ruled by South Africa; it is thus a party to the violent regional conflict over apartheid.
The control of Angola has been disputed for more than a decade between two factions, one avowedly "Marxist," the other -- Savimbi's -- originally "Maoist." (As in Rhodesia, now Zimwe, it was the fashion for insurrectionary tribal factions to profess the flavor of their patron, Muscovite or Pekinese).
After more than a decade of struggle, the Marxists control the capital, some two thirds of Angola's huge land mass and the oil. Savimbi's crowd controls the southern third and the diamond mines -- which may be why he can pay a Washington public-relations firm to manage his campaign for U.S. assistance.
It sounds like, and is, a dismally familiar tale. The United States long ago forfeited its slight chance to shape the post-colonial destiny of Angola at acceptable cost. NATO politics compelled us -- the excuse was good, but it was costly -- to support Portuguese rule in Angola long after its natural term. The same considerations led us -- grim analogy -- to back the French attempt after 1945 to restore control in Indochina.
Nothing has happened in the past 10 years to break the Angolan impasse. The "Marxist" government is sustained by Cuban mercenaries and pleads the excuse of South Africa's strong-arm backing of Savimbi. The government isn't strong enough to crush Savimbi. Savimbi isn't strong enough to overthrow the government. Moreover, while there are high ideological pretensions on both sides, it is clearly an unresolved civil war.
But while little has happened in Angola during 10 years of deadlock, much has happened in Washington -- including the advent of "neoconservative" ideologues to influence within the Reagan administration. The neoconservatives, with such folks as Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Norman Podhoretz tooting the fugelhorns, have taken up Savimbi, sometime disciple of Mao, as their hero. Thomas Jefferson himself would blush to be extolled as Savimbi has been.
All Savimbi wants of us is open intervention -- military aid. Even if intervention made ense otherwise, who really believes that an institution so mercurial as Congress would invest enough, long enough, in Savimbi's war to make a success of it?
We can help him make a bigger nuisance of himself, both to the government and to the U.S. oil companies (ChevronGulf) whose government- sanctioned facilities he brazenly threatens to sabotage. But that's about all.
As the reward for this quixotic gesture, we would stand to reinforce the harmful impression in Africa that the United States is a mainstay of apartheid -- as if it needed reinforcing. For Savimbi, owing to his alliance with Pretoria, is thought of as South Africa's cat's paw.
The Savimbi fever is typical of the infatuations of neoconservative foreign policy. It exhibits the two classic symptoms: The first is a recurring U.S. tendency to fawn, in a most undignified fashion, over any opportunist who pleads anticommunist credentials, even when the credentials are as thin as Savimbi's. The second, worse but related, is an inability to deal with political ambiguity. The politics of southern Africa are a complex weave of tribalism, self-interest, ideology and racial conflict; but by Savimbi-worshippers Angola is depicted as a battleground between right and wrong and light and darkness.
If Ronald Reagan really meant what he recently told the United Nations about the danger of regional conflicts, the United States should continue seeking to mediate Angola's civil war -- not prolong it by unnecessarily choosing sides.