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Carter, Africa, & Salt


A little history should teach us a little patience in dealing with Africa. When the communists finally won in China a generation ago, their victory was regarded in Washington simply as a Russian takeover. Today communist China is communist Russia’s most fanatical enemy.

To glance back for a moment at the White Paper on China which Secretary of State Acheson issued twenty-nine years ago this August is a timely reminder of how resoundingly wrong an American government could be at one of the great turning points of history. “The communist leaders,” Secretary Acheson said in his preface to the White Paper, “have forsworn their Chinese heritage and have publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power, Russia,” and he called on the Chinese people to “throw off the foreign yoke.”

Nobody knows how many billions we spent in an effort to prevent their victory and how many billions more in the effort to strangle the new regime, but if there could have been a “Nixon visit” in 1950, Peking today would be a powerful military ally of the United States instead of a weak and impoverished giant, America’s biggest welfare applicant.

From opposite vantage points, Washington and Moscow made the same misjudgments then and are repeating them in Africa today. Both the great powers completely underestimated the hold of nationalism, with its deep moorings in geography, tradition, and culture. Both completely overestimated the power of ideology. If there were a Russian opposition party, able to protest the resources being squandered on Africa, its prize exhibit would be Russian intervention in China: the way Russian arms and military advisers built up the Kuomintang armies only to have Chiang Kai-shek turn on them in his hour of victory in 1927 and massacre his communist allies, and the way in which the Chinese communists after years of aid from Russia have become its most inveterate enemy.

On a smaller scale, the same bitter comedy is playing itself out in Indochina. The long series of wars there since 1945 were fought first by the French and then by us on the simple theory that Vietnam was China’s puppet, as China was Russia’s puppet. Yet with our withdrawal from the bloody scene, all three are freshly embroiled in a triangular brawl of their own. Peking and Hanoi are speaking of each other with hatred; China helps Cambodia fight Vietnam, and Vietnam, despite Russian aid, has just announced its ingratitude at UN headquarters. A Hanoi press release said that Chinese reports that it was about to give the Soviet Union use of the naval base we built in Cam Ranh Bay was a “total fabrication.” So dissoluble are the indissoluble bonds forged in war and revolution. Such indeed was our attitude toward France after its help in our own revolution.

The path of empire has never been more slippery than in these days when new nations are striving to be born—and old ones to be reborn—in Asia and Africa. Except where, as in Eastern Europe, Moscow still keeps armies of occupation, its hold is as precarious as that of the old capitalist imperialisms. Yet long after the life has evaporated from Marxism-Leninism in its citadel, American political leaders still cling touchingly to a faith in its magic power.

If Washington were to be believed, Russia has been on the verge of taking over Africa for two decades. In 1960 John F. Kennedy thought he could garner votes by his inflammatory attacks on Eisenhower for failing to hold onto Ghana and Guinea, though few American voters could have given the correct answer if asked what continent they were on. Guinea under Sékou Touré, thanks in part to the aid embargo we imposed upon him, was Moscow’s most faithful satellite in Africa. Moscow had invested $100 million and 1,500 technicians in the development of what was to become a particularly brutal regime.

But Soviet nationals were expelled in 1961, and in the missile crisis of 1963, when the Russians were desperate for ways to supply their distant satellite in Cuba, Sékou Touré refused to let them use the airfield they themselves had built for him in Guinea. Nasser, then their favorite client, was similarly ungrateful when he stopped shipments through Egypt of Soviet weapons to Congolese rebels in the 1960s.

All this is a familiar story to the African experts, but they dare not when in office publicly recall it lest they be accused of somehow being soft on communism. Here is a ready example. In 1963 the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford, the last redoubt still holding out against the revolution of 1917, published a comprehensive symposium on Africa and the Communist World. In his scholarly chapter on “Soviet Political Activity,” Alexander Dallin, after surveying the efforts of Moscow’s once famous (and in Washington highly feared) “Friendship University” for Africans, reported of the black revolution it trained that “no African fellow traveler has ever remained a stable and dependable ally of the USSR.”

Dallin commented sardonically on how “time and again, some ephemeral ‘Marxist’ group would dub itself a Communist party, only to have its leaders and its total membership (sometimes identical) defect without remorse or second thoughts.” The book was edited by a professor since come to prominence in the Carter administration, but Zbigniew Brzezinski has abandoned such astringent realism for the more exciting alarms that endear him to the Old Cold Warriors in Congress, the Old Believers whose faith in the potency of Marxism-Leninism to work miracles remains unshaken.1 Despite more recent communist pratfalls in the Sudan, in Mozambique, in Somalia, and in Iraq, these are the political sectaries who still insist that the Russians can walk on water, even the turbulent waters of Africa.


All we have said so far seems to have been implied by Carter’s campaign speeches on Africa, by the appointment of Andrew Young, by the fresh policies applied elsewhere in southern Africa, and by the “keep cool” speeches last year from Carter and Secretary Vance. Why, then, the sudden hysteria being whipped up over Zaire and Angola?

To find a clear and complete answer is difficult. Every student of African politics comes back appalled by the complexities. But when you begin to study the shift in the Carter administration you begin to realize that the politics of Washington are pretty dark and murky too.

From an anthropological point of view—and sometimes one feels that anthropology is as necessary in Washington as in Africa—American presidents since World War II have had to undergo a puberty rite, to reassure the tribe that the new headman could stand up to its immemorial enemies, the Musku-bumbus, or Russians.

Under Kennedy this need to show that the new president wasn’t “chicken” gave us the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam. Johnson stepped up the bombing in Indochina, basically, and for those who knew him unmistakably, because he felt a challenge to his virility. Carter’s recent “get tough” speeches and the ultimatum-like challenge at Annapolis—“confrontation or cooperation”—seem to be in the same traditional mold. The recurrent cost of proving each new president’s manhood has proven a major, and unbalancing, budgetary item; our present inflationary headaches began with the Vietnam war; the last thing we need is a new and bigger Vietnam—or succession of Vietnams—in Africa. Especially if accompanied by a steppedup arms race, this seems a sure way finally to do in the dollar.

Yet behind the scenes, well before the Shaba invasion of Zaire from Angola, there were feelers from the White House for a way to get around the restrictions imposed by Congress in recent years to prevent a Vietnam in Africa. The Shaba invasion began the night of May 11-12. But in the May 1 issue of The New Yorker, an article by Elizabeth Drew on Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the most extensive and informative study of him to date, first lifted the curtain on these efforts. She reported that while Carter had been critical in the 1976 campaign of Ford-Kissinger attempts at covert CIA intervention in Angola and had supported the restrictions placed on such actions by the Clark amendment, Brzezinski had been moving back to the Kissinger African policies.

In recent months,” Ms. Drew wrote, “Brzezinski has raised the question of whether the congressional restrictions are still applicable; the CIA has told him that they are.” According to Ms. Drew, Brzezinski is critical of the restrictions placed not only on the president but on the CIA. “He is troubled,” she reported, “by the number of reviews to which some activities [i.e. covert activities] have to be subjected before they can be undertaken.” In this he seems to be at odds with the executive order put into effect last January by Carter which requires that “appropriate members of Congress” be informed. It also requires that the president himself approve covert activity of any importance.

But Brzezinski, Ms. Drew went on, “is known to believe that the president should have broad flexibility, including ‘deniability’—that is, that it should be possible to carry out operations in a way that would enable the president to deny that he knew about them.” With this doctrine of “plausible deniability” we are back in the full bloom of the Nixon-Kissinger era. Brzezinski, like Kissinger, apparently believes that the CIA, by covert operations in aid of the rebel movements in Angola, should “punish” the Neto regime and create for Cuba a situation resembling our own in Vietnam. How to bring about a Vietnam in Africa for Cuba by covert American action without creating a Vietnam for ourselves is a question he has not addressed.

The revelations made in the May 1 New Yorker cast important light on certain events since. These show the corruption-through-secrecy and the lack of candor which marked the Vietnam war years. On May 4, Carter said at a press conference, “We have no intention to intercede in any war in Angola.”

But a few days later, Admiral Stansfield Turner, director of the CIA, and Brzezinski’s right-hand man, Carter’s deputy national security adviser David Aaron, approached Senator Clark (D. Iowa), co-author of the Clark-Tunney amendment forbidding direct or indirect—open or covert—US intervention in Angola without express congressional authorization. They wanted Clark’s approval of, or acquiescence in, a plan to transfer equipment through a third party to the UNITA rebel forces in Angola. Clark turned them down, saying it would be against the law. On May 23, when the senator heard that the story of Turner’s request was to break next day in the Washington Post, Clark issued a statement saying, “It is increasingly clear that President Carter has made the decision to reinvolve the United States in the Angola civil war.”

The full story of this effort to circumvent the law is yet to be known. One question, hitherto unanswered, is why Turner and Aaron were foolish enough to approach Clark, perhaps the senator most likely to disapprove of their plan.

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    Dallin is still refusing to work himself into a sweat. In Newsweek June 12, he writes, “When we toughen our rhetoric, as Brzezinski has, we make it easier for the hard-liners in the Kremlin. All this verbal escalation simply fuels Moscow’s backstage dialogue and provides ammunition for those who argue that détente won’t work. The code of détente is unwritten, and each side reads something else into it. In the early Seventies, there was a feeling we were stabilizing the status quo. Kissinger oversold that idea in this country, but the Soviets never bought it. As far as they are concerned, parity means equal opportunity to meddle in international affairs. I’m not as alarmed as some people. I don’t see any great Russian master plan. They are interested in asserting their influence as long as there is no great risk involved. And so far, there isn’t. The trouble is that they have misread the American public. The price they pay is not in terms of a showdown on the battlefield, but in public support for SALT and other agreements.” Such calm is not Brzezinski’s style.

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