Modern history

13

America in the Middle East and Africa

The United States is committed to defend Israel’s existence, but not Israel’s conquests.

HENRY KISSINGER, 1970

SINCE 1945 THE EASTERN END OF THE MEDITERRANEAN, WHERE Western civilization began, has been a theater of intense activity. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have tried to impose on the scene their own Cold War mentality and habits—movement and response, bluff and counterbluff—as each superpower has attempted to gain a temporary advantage. The Turks, Arabs, Iranians, Jews, and others who live in the region have tried, with fair success, to play one side against the other, but essentially the Cold War was irrelevant to them. They took advantage of the American and Russian obsession with each other, but they never felt that Communism versus anti-Communism was their problem or that it in any way defined their choices. Consequently, there has been a bewildering shift in alliances over the past generation, with both the Americans and the Russians enjoying brilliant successes, then suffering devastating setbacks.

War, as always, has been the supreme arbitrator. There have been six major Middle Eastern conflicts since World War II, in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1980-89 and 1990-91, with endemic border warfare in between the big wars. The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, and Czechoslovakia have all sent massive shipments of arms and fighting men to participate in the area’s struggles.

The stakes are enormous. The Arab world is important to America and Western Europe because the Arabs sit astride the Suez Canal and beside the Straits of Gibraltar, and they control the northern approaches to the Indian Ocean; because they are the sacred guardians of one of the world’s largest religions and its great shrines; and because there are so many of them. Most important to the West is the fact that a small percentage of Arabs control a large percentage of the world’s oil.

The non-Arab countries in the Middle East include Turkey, Iran, and Israel. The Turks have little oil, but they do have a strategic location because they block Russia’s only warm-water port, and of course they have one of the world’s oldest civilizations. In 1972, they invaded Cyprus, taking the northern half of the island and thus exacerbating their centuries-old conflict with the Greeks—who are their allies in NATO. Only in the Middle East could allies also be enemies! The Iranians are strategically weak, due to their long border with Russia, but they have abundant oil, which allowed them to buy from the United States a modern and large air force.

Israel, by way of contrast, has neither oil nor population nor strategic advantage, is without easily defended borders, and is surrounded by her much more numerous enemies. What she does have is an army with the highest morale of any in the world, a highly educated, intense, hard-working people, a moral claim on the world’s conscience, and the active support of the American Jewish community, which is tiny in numbers but mighty in political strength and a major prop of Israel’s economy.

It is the presence of the Jewish state of Israel on territory that was once Palestine that causes the basic Middle Eastern political problem, whose magnitude cannot be exaggerated. It has been and remains the most intractable problem of world diplomacy.23

From 1948 on, most Arabs have refused to agree that the state of Israel has a right to exist, while the Israelis have insisted (especially since 1967) that the Palestinian refugees have no right to a national state of their own. When national existence is at stake, no compromise is possible. That the Israelis and Arabs will someday have to become good neighbors seems as impossible to them as it does obvious to the rest of the world.

Robert Stookey has written, “The land of Palestine belongs of right to a people uniquely favored of God, the vehicle of His revelation respecting the salvation of mankind, charged with a permanent mission for the enlightenment of humanity and the establishment of justice, long the object of repression and injustice, whose enemies are presently sustained by a world superpower for its own imperial interests.”

Israelis and Arabs alike believe that the above sentence is describing them. In short, the Middle East sets true believer against true believer with survival as the issue. No wonder, then, that solutions are hard to find, or that the warfare has been so bloody and costly and, worst of all, continuous. No wonder, too, that hatreds run so deep.

For American policymakers the Middle East has often been a headache, sometimes a nightmare, as each President has tried, in his own way, to pursue an even-handed policy, if only because he needed both Arab oil and Jewish campaign contributions. By the 1970s the United States also needed Arab goodwill and investment. Complicating everything was the American anti-Communist crusade, which made it difficult for the Secretaries of State to deal realistically with the essential problem of national homelands for both Israelis and Palestinians. Nor were the Secretaries altogether wrong to see Communism as a threat to the Middle East, for the Russians certainly were constantly meddling in the area, just like the Americans. Both sides poured arms into the hands of their friends, to such an extent that in 1973 the Israelis, Egyptians, and Syrians fought the second-biggest tank battle in history. The Arabs lost 1,800 tanks, the Israelis more than 500.

Neither of the superpowers has had much interest in ideological purity. At various times the Russians have supported the most reactionary of the richest Arab rulers, while the United States gave aid to the most radical of the poorest Arab governments. American and Russian involvement was on a day-to-day, or at best month-to-month, basis, because neither side had a well-thought-out program for the region. They could not have one, because they had no solution to the problem of national homelands. So each played it by ear, with resulting policy shifts that often appeared to be not only sudden but incomprehensible. One looked in vain for consistency, except that both sides insisted that the other had no right to intervene in the Middle East (except when war broke out, when each demanded that the other exert its influence to stop the fighting).

As was shown by the events following Nasser’s death in 1970, Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat, was painfully aware that Egypt was held in contempt or pity by much of the world. This included the Russians, who were supplying him with military hardware and financial support, but who treated him indifferently at best, with contempt at worst. Because of the huge military budget, what little money the Russians did provide was hardly enough to stave off national bankruptcy in the poverty-stricken land (Israel was also approaching bankruptcy due to military expenses). Furthermore, Sadat doubted that the Russians would ever be able to move the Israelis out of Sinai, while the Americans might be able to force them back. Also, it was obvious that the United States did a far better job of supplying its friends than Russia did. But the United States could hardly be expected to come to Egypt’s aid when Soviet soldiers and technicians were swarming over the country.

008

009

THE MIDDLE EAST IN 1997

So in 1972 Sadat presented the United States with one of its greatest victories in the Cold War: Without informing Secretary Kissinger in advance of his intentions or extracting anything from Washington in return, he expelled the 20,000 Russians from Egypt. It was a foreign policy setback to the Russians of the first magnitude. Nothing remotely like it had happened previously. At a stroke Russian influence in the Middle East was cut back, her presence dramatically reduced. But because there had been no preparation, and because Kissinger (and Nixon and the CIA and the Israelis) continued to believe that Sadat would not dare take up arms to rectify the situation in the Sinai, the United States did nothing to follow up on Sadat’s bold initiative. Kissinger made no serious attempt to force Israel to compromise; indeed, he looked the other way as Israelis began building permanent settlements in the occupied territories. Sadat, meanwhile, knew that with every passing day the Israeli occupation of Arab lands would come to seem more acceptable, even normal. Soon the world would accept it as a fact. He could not abandon his homeland. Again and again Sadat warned that war must come if the Israelis did not withdraw. Again and again he was ignored.

The Israeli Army, in the meantime, had overextended itself. By occupying all of the Sinai up to the east bank of the Suez, it had gone far to the west of the natural defensive line on the high ground running north and south through the middle of the Sinai. Further, the presence of Israeli soldiers along the Suez was a standing affront to the Egyptians.

Sadat had set 1971 as the “year of decision.” It came and went, with no action. Egypt looked more pathetic than ever. In 1972 Sadat kicked out the Russians. In March 1973 Sadat sent his security adviser, Hafez Ismail, to Washington. Kissinger later told Prime Minister Golda Meir, “What did I do in those conversations? I talked with Ismail about the weather ... just so we wouldn’t get to the subject. I played with him.... Ismail told me several times that the present situation could not continue. He asked me whether the United States did not understand that if there weren’t some agreement then there would be war.... There wasn’t even a slight smile on my face, but in my heart I laughed and laughed. A war? Egypt? I regarded it as empty talk, a boast empty of content.”

So empty, in fact, that the United States seemed to go out of its way to insult Ismail. Although Nixon promised him that the United States would use its influence with Israel, a few days after he left Washington the United States announced that it was supplying Israel with forty-eight additional Phantom jets.

Sadat gave up on a political approach. The only way to get back Egyptian territory was to drive the Israelis from it. Since the Americans would not take him seriously, Sadat swallowed his pride and turned to the Russians, after first arranging with Syria for a coordinated attack on Israel, and with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia for a simultaneous imposition of an oil embargo, which would presumably have the effect of paralyzing the United States. When the Kremlin heard Sadat’s plan, the Russian leaders decided in turn to swallow their pride and supply the Egyptians and Syrians with enough hardware—especially missiles—to launch an attack.

On October 6, 1973, during the Jewish religious holiday of Yom Kippur, the Egyptian and Syrian armies struck with tanks, missiles, and planes. The Israelis were caught by surprise. On the Syrian front they were driven off the Golan Heights; along the Suez the Egyptians destroyed the much-vaunted Bar-Lev defensive line, which the Israelis had thought impregnable, then drove several miles deep inside the Sinai and entrenched.

These stunning victories came as a surprise to everyone except possibly Sadat. Israel may not have been quite on the verge of extinction, but her national existence was threatened as it had never been before, and her leaders knew that without outside assistance she was doomed. Only the United States could provide the necessary help in the form of new planes, tanks, and missiles.

Thus began one of the most controversial events in Dr. Kissinger’s controversial career. Because of the role he chose to play, and because of the way in which he played it, he was vilified by both sides at various times, cursed, hanged in effigy, accused of having neither morals nor common sense, denounced as a man who was incapable of responding to the misery of millions of Palestinians, and perhaps worst of all, charged with not caring a fig for his own Jewish people.

The first requirement was to save Israel from a complete military disaster. A second was to avoid, if at all possible, an oil embargo, which would be much more effective in 1973 than in 1967, because in the intervening six years the United States had switched from being a net exporter of oil to a net importer. A third requirement was to find some formula, such as 242, to bring peace to the Middle East. Kissinger failed to solve the problem of how to help Israel without goading the Arabs into an oil embargo, and he was unable to bring peace to the area, but what Kissinger did manage to accomplish was impressive enough.

Kissinger was the first to recognize that the Israeli loss of tanks and planes during the early hours of the fighting, coupled with the now demonstrated fact that Egyptian and Syrian soldiers could fight and kill, shifted the strategic balance away from Israel. His first step was the traditional proposal of a cease-fire in place, but Israel would not accept it because she was losing and Sadat would not accept because he was not winning enough. Recovering from their surprise, the Israelis began to hold their own, but to retake lost ground they needed new weapons. They began making frantic demands on Kissinger for supplies, especially after October 10, when the Russians launched a large-scale airlift of supplies to Syria and Egypt, replacing the arms lost in battle. The Russian objective was to support a cease-fire after the Arabs had won the maximum advantage from their surprise attack and before Israel had time to mount an effective counteroffensive.

Kissinger was under heavy pressure. The American public and Congress regarded Israel as the victim of aggression (ignoring the obvious fact that the Arabs were only trying to recover territory conquered by Israel in 1967). The Soviets, by shipping arms after promising restraint, had directly challenged the United States in a crucial spot on the globe. The Israeli Ambassador to the United States punctuated his demands for help with explicit threats to mobilize American Jews against the Nixon administration.

The Secretary of State gave in to the pressure, perhaps most of all because of his determination that Russian guns should never be allowed to prevail over American guns. On October 13 Kissinger got Nixon to order an all-out airlift by American military aircraft direct to Israel. In the end American deliveries substantially exceeded those of Moscow to the Arabs, proving that America’s military capacity in time of crisis was superior to that of the Russians. On October 15, with the American equipment, the Israelis began their counterattack, crossed the Suez at two points, and encircled the Egyptian Third Army while driving the Syrians back from the Golan Heights.

The shift in the tide of battle brought the Russians back onto the scene, this time as promoters of a ceasefire in place. Kissinger agreed. He did not want to let the Israelis win a big victory and certainly did not want to humiliate Sadat. In addition, he now had to deal with his worst nightmare become reality: The Arab oil states, led by Faisal of Saudi Arabia, had imposed an effective embargo on oil shipments to the United States and to Israel’s friends in Europe.

The Great Oil Embargo of 1973 was as important an event in the awakening of the Arabs as the Egyptian/Syrian victory in the first week of the Yom Kippur War. From Kissinger and Nixon on down, Americans had assumed that the Arabs could never stick together, that any attempt at coordinated action would break down into petty bickering in a matter of days, and that therefore Arab threats about making political use of oil were not to be taken seriously. This was a great mistake, because in 1973 the Arabs did impose an embargo and made it stick. Americans discovered, to their collective chagrin, that they needed the Arabs more than the Arabs needed them.

Kissinger’s first step, in what he called step-by-step diplomacy, was to get the shooting stopped and the talking started. He therefore joined with the Russians on October 22 to put through the Security Council Resolution 338, which called for a cease-fire in place and the implementation of Resolution 242.

Israel ignored it. General Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Minister of Defense, kept the pressure on the surrounded Egyptian Third Army, because, as he later told the New York Times, he wanted to capture thirty thousand Egyptian soldiers, “and Sadat would have had to admit it to his people. We might only have held them for a day and let them walk out without their arms, but it would have changed the whole Egyptian attitude about whether they had won or lost the war.” Kissinger, fully aware of Dayan’s intentions, was furious. There could be no productive talks if the Egyptians were humiliated again, and without talks there would be no oil. So, Dayan complained, “the United States moved in and denied us the fruits of victory.” Kissinger handed down “an ultimatum—nothing short of it.” Of course, Kissinger’s ultimatum was the threat to stop the flow of arms that had made the victory possible in the first place.

Simultaneously with Kissinger’s pressure on Dayan, the Russians made a startling move. On October 24 Soviet Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev proposed to Nixon that they send a joint Soviet-American expeditionary force to Suez to save the Third Army from Dayan. If Nixon was not interested, Brezhnev added, the Soviet Union would go in alone. The CIA meanwhile reported that the Russians had seven airborne divisions on alert, ready to go.

Kissinger responded in the strongest terms possible, short of actual war.24 He persuaded Nixon to proclaim a worldwide alert of American armed forces, including nuclear strike forces. The Pentagon prepared plans to fly American troops to the Suez to confront the Russian paratroopers, if necessary. Kissinger then made certain that Brezhnev understood that the United States would go to the limit to keep Russian troops out of the area. The UN peace-keeping force must be drawn from the armies of non-nuclear powers, Kissinger insisted. Brezhnev agreed and the American alert, which had alarmed everybody, was called off. Dayan ended the pressure on the Third Army and the war was over.

Now Kissinger could step onto the center stage, previously occupied first by the contending armies, then by the American nuclear forces on alert. It was time for diplomacy, and never had the world seen a diplomat quite like the Secretary of State. It was true that the United States had previously acted as honest broker in the Middle East, bringing the Egyptians and Israelis together to arrange local cease-fires or border adjustments, but Kissinger added his own special touch to the process. Flying from Israel to Arab capitals in his specially equipped jet airliner, surrounded by the world press corps, appearing on the evening news with a different monarch or head of state each night, dazzling reporters with his wit and statesmen with his charm, overwhelming everyone with his detailed knowledge (he knew the height, in meters, of every hill in Sinai), the Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany became a genuine worldwide superstar.

His essential role was more modest—as he himself often declared, all he could do was explain to one side the constraints under which the other side operated. He did so with impressive patience, thoroughness, goodwill and skill. To the Israelis he said: All the world is against you, and you cannot stand against the whole world. To the Arabs he said: Only the United States can persuade Israel to retreat from the conquered territory, but you cannot expect the United States to invest so much time and energy in an operation that is so clearly in the Arab interest as long as you withhold your oil. To both sides he said, You must compromise.

But he said it in the context of step-by-step diplomacy, which meant that instead of taking on the big questions, such as the status of Jerusalem or a homeland for the Palestinians, he began with the little problems, mainly disengaging the armies, which were badly intermixed on both sides of Suez and in the Golan Heights. The trouble with step-by-step, according to Kissinger’s numerous critics, was that it was myopic, precisely because it ignored the real issues. How could you have peace in the Middle East if you ignored the PLO? According to Kissinger’s numerous defenders, it was obvious that if you began by discussing the PLO, the talks would end right there.

Kissinger also took advantage of his position as spokesman for the world’s richest nation. Although the evidence is inconclusive, and no details are known, he evidently made vast promises about the American economic and technical help that would be available to both sides in the event of genuine peace in the region.25

Step one began on November 7, 1973, when Kissinger flew to Cairo to meet with Sadat. The United States and Egypt reestablished diplomatic relations, broken since 1967. Next Kissinger arranged for an exchange of prisoners of war and the lifting of the Israeli sieges of the city of Suez and of the Third Army. He set up a Geneva conference that met in December and accomplished nothing; in private he arranged for an Egyptian-Israeli accord (signed January 18, 1974) that provided for a mutual disengagement and pullback of forces along Suez and the establishment of a UN Emergency Force buffer zone between them. The Russians, like everyone else, watched in amazement as Kissinger moved the pieces around the chessboard.

His great triumph, the reward for all his hard work, came on March 18, 1974, when the Arab states lifted the oil embargo. During May 1974 he shuttled back and forth between Syria and Israel, finally (May 31) achieving a cease-fire and complex troop disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights.

In the remaining two and a half years of the Nixon-Ford administrations, the United States provided Israel with more than $3 billion worth of weapons. These included precision-guided munitions, cluster-bomb units, tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, cargo trucks, cargo aircraft, rifles, helicopters, antitank guided rockets, electronic counterradar boxes, Phantoms, and Skyhawks. One Pentagon official declared, “Israel wants one thousand percent security and she’s getting it. She can decisively defeat any combination of Arab armies at least through 1980.”

This commitment to Israel’s defense was not Kissinger’s doing alone. By the mid-1970s Congress was beginning to exert itself in foreign affairs (see chapter twelve). It was usually an interference on the side of caution—pull out of Vietnam and Cambodia, stay out of Angola, and so on—but in the Middle East, where everything gets turned around, Congress was determined to stand by Israel. Thus on May 21, 1975, seventy-six members of the Senate wrote a collective letter to President Ford to endorse Israel’s demand for “defensible” frontiers. The letter was spiced with such phrases as “the special relationship between our country and Israel,” “witholding military equipment from Israel would be dangerous,” and “the United States ... stands firmly with Israel.” This was an impressive demonstration of the strength of the Jewish lobby in Washington. It was followed in the summer of 1975 by a Senate vote that blocked the sale of defensive Hawk missiles to King Hussein of Jordan.

Kissinger was caught in his own trap by the Senate when Senator Henry Jackson of Washington turned Kissinger’s concept of linkage against him. Jackson linked Jewish emigration from Russia with American trade deals with the Kremlin. Kissinger, never one to see consistency as a virtue, was furious at this linkage, because it jeopardized the trade agreements that were to be the payoff for détente. He tried to explain to Senator Jackson that emigration and trade were not and should not be linked, but he failed to convince the Senate.

Jackson successfully blocked the granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to the Russians, which would have allowed greatly increased trade between the United States and the Soviet Union, over the issue of the “exit tax.” This was, in effect, a tuition the state charged Jews who imigrated to Israel, taking their education and skills with them. Senator Jackson said this was blood money and an outrage. Brezhnev, who was eager for the trade but unwilling to have it thought that he had been forced to back down by a U.S. Senator, offered a compromise to Nixon. He would privately suspend the exit tax, and would continue to allow an annual level of Jewish emigration of 40,000. But when Nixon brought this compromise to Jackson, he discovered that rather than wanting the best achievable arrangement, Jackson wanted an issue. Jackson refused to remove his objections. In retaliation for failure to obtain MFN status, Brezhnev sharply curtailed Jewish emigration, cutting it down to less than 1,000 per year, and charged the full “exit tax.” Yet Senator Jackson remained the favorite of the American Jewish lobby!

This is as good an example as any of the difficulties that ensue when the Congress gets involved in foreign policy, and of the kind of thinking Nixon and Kissinger had to contend with while they tried to erect their new world order. It provides a startling point for a discussion of the widespread belief that Richard Nixon was a brilliant maker of foreign policy.

There is a basis for the belief. In the face of great obstacles one of which was the Senate, the Nixon administration had some major foreign policy triumphs. First, it managed to extract the United States from Vietnam. Second, it opened the door to China. Third, it promoted a policy of détente with the Russians. Fourth, it reached an arms-control agreement with the Soviets. No other Cold War administration could claim even one such accomplishment.

But there is another side to the story. Nixon’s retreat from Vietnam came only after four horrible years of war, and when he did pull out he got no better a deal than he could have had in 1969. If he was the man most responsible for opening the door to China, he was also the man most responsible for keeping it closed for the preceding thirty years. Détente, for all its promise, was substantially flawed by Nixon’s inability to convince the Senate of its desirability, and his own refusal to trust the Russians to the slightest degree. As a consequence, détente was coldly rejected by the subsequent administration. The limits set by SALT have long since been passed. There was, in short, little that was lasting in Nixon’s foreign policy, certainly nothing like the Truman Doctrine.

Nixon had some brilliant ideas, but he did not build the constituency necessary to carry them out. Perhaps, as the example of Senator Jackson and Jewish emigration indicates, it would have been impossible to overcome a quarter century of Cold War habits. Perhaps, as Nixon’s admirers argue, if he had had a full four-year second term, he could have prevailed.26 Perhaps, as Nixon argues, had he been at the helm in 1975, the North Vietnamese would never have dared overrun Saigon. Perhaps.

The final reckoning is that Nixon and Kissinger failed to reach their major foreign policy goals. They did not extract the United States from Vietnam without losing Vietnam to the Communists; they could not solve the problem of Formosa and thus establish full diplomatic relations with the Chinese; they could not establish a lasting détente; they did not put any controls on the arms race; they did not bring peace to the Middle East. Judged by their own standards, they came up short.

In the Middle East, Nixon and Kissinger had little to show for shuttle diplomacy, except that the Arabs were selling oil—at a fourfold price increase—to the United States and Europe. The Senate’s letter on the defense of Israel made the Israelis immune to American threats of the withdrawal of American support, enabling them to continue to take a tough line in the peace negotiations. The Israelis still occupied most of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank of the Jordan. The PLO problem was worse than ever, punctuated by a confusing civil war in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims, with Syria deeply involved, the PLO in the thick of it, and Israeli-manned, American-built modern weapons devastating Lebanese suspected of harboring the PLO.

Peace in the Middle East remained a goal, rather than a reality, of American foreign policy. Permanent solutions still were out of reach. The Middle East overall remained, as it had been so often described by American presidents, a tinderbox, ready to set the world afire from a single spark.

In Africa, too, in the 1970s, these was no peace. In Zambia, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Angola, Southwest Africa (Namibia), Mozambique, and South Africa, 4 million whites ruled 30 million blacks. These states were roughly united by their minority government status and by a shocking exploitation of black labor27 by an elite of fabulously wealthy whites.

But just as the white-ruled states followed different traditions, so would they take different paths. By 1979 Zambia, Angola, and Mozambique had achieved majority rule, and Rhodesia was on the way toward the cremation of a democratic state based on a one-man, one-vote principle. In Nambia, on the other hand, the situation worsened, as South Africa tightened her grip on her colony. And in South Africa itself, independent since the turn of the century, the most racist white-ruled state in the world grew even more racist. The white minority had a monopoly of force that it did not hesitate to use and of power that it would not yield or share.

All the states of southern Africa had some economic importance to the United States. Consequently American policy, as summed up by NSSM 39,28 was “to try to balance our economic, scientific and strategic interests in the white states with the political interest of dissociating the U.S. from the white minority regimes and their repressive racial policies.” The problem was that this was less a policy than a hope and thus contributed to the relative paucity of American influence on developments in southern Africa.

NSSM 39 predicted a continued stalemate in the Portuguese colony of Angola,29 where black liberation forces waged a guerrilla war against the government. Angola differed from South Africa and Rhodesia in that all overt racial discrimination had been eliminated by the Portuguese, who in the sixties started a crash program to educate blacks and integrate them into the economy. Many black leaders rejected this program as an attempt to retain white control.

There were three major movements demanding full independence for Angola, namely, the Popular Movement, or MPLA, the National Front, or FNLA, and UNITA (National Union for Total Independence). All received some aid from Russia and/or China, but the MPLA leaders had Marxist, antiimperialist views and had denounced the United States for its support of Portugal. American newspapers spoke of the “Soviet-backed” MPLA and the “moderate” FNLA.

The United States had attempted to remain an observer of the problems of Angola and Mozambique (also a Portuguese colony), while maintaining a posture of coolness toward Portugal itself, until 1971 when Nixon moved in a pro-Portuguese direction. Kissinger wanted a strong NATO and access to Portugal’s strategic base in the Azores. In exchange for the latter, Nixon signed an executive agreement that gave Portugal a $436 million loan. The next year Nixon authorized the sale of military transports to Portugal, then lent more money, which the Portuguese used to buy helicopters for use against the guerrilla warriors in their colonies. The payoff for Kissinger came during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Portugal was the only NATO ally to allow American planes bound for Israel to refuel on its territory.

In April 1974 a military coup in Lisbon created a new situation. Tired of fighting unending and unsuccessful wars, the Portuguese military leaders decided to give the colonies their independence. In January 1975 a transitional government was established in Luanda, the capital of Angola, with each of the liberation movements sharing in the preparations for independence and each group campaigning throughout the country for the elections scheduled for October 1975. Independence day would be November 11, 1975.

The FNLA, the MPLA, and UNITA found it impossible to work together; according to the big powers, because to ideological splits over Communism versus capitalism, but according to African sources, because of major ethnic and tribal cleavages. In any event, the chaos in Luanda invited outside intervention.

The United States was the first to respond. Kissinger and CIA Director William Colby argued that the United States entered the Angolan civil war only to counter a Russian threat there, but John Stockwell, the chief of the CIA Angola Task Force, later charged that the United States made the first actual move.30 Given Angola’s political options, the CIA’s choice was the FNLA. Also acceptable was UNITA. The MPLA was thought to be radical, Communist, and Russian-backed, so it had to be stopped. In fact, great-power rivalry was the motivating factor, for outsiders moved in on Angola almost before the Portuguese could get out of the way. It was not merely the great powers, either; at one time or another the FNLA and UNITA received support from not only the United States and China, but also Rumania, North Korea, France, Israel, West Germany, Senegal, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa. The MPLA was supported by the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, Algeria, Guinea, and Poland, surely a record of some sort for politics making strange bedfellows.

South Africa entered the conflict with regular army troops in September 1975. This was the first time South Africa had involved itself in a war in Black Africa. It brought about a situation in which Washington, Pretoria, and Peking were fighting side-by-side.

010

AFRICA IN 1997

The South Africans hoped to gain sympathy by supporting the same side as Zaire and the United States. They convinced themselves that their troops, although white, would be more acceptable to Angola—because they were native Africans31—than blacks coming from Cuba. They also thought they would win, which encouraged them to embark on such a dangerous course. Eventually South Africa sent an armored column of its regular troops to fight beside UNITA, which then came close to winning the war.

The South African offensive was finally stopped. The Soviets gave the MPLA massive arms support and the Cubans sent fifteen thousand highly trained and efficient regular troops of their own. The Cubans decisively tipped the balance and the MPLA quickly won the war. American oil refineries continued to operate—soon Cuban troops were protecting Chevron property from UNITA soldiers armed with American weapons. If a Soviet presence in Africa upset Kissinger, the Cuban presence led him to storm and thunder. “The United States will not accept further Communist military intervention in Africa,” he declared in March 1976. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield dismissed this as “useless rhetoric,” and House Majority Leader Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., demanded that President Ford “publicly repudiate” Kissinger. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, then lamely explained that the Ford administration was reviewing “only economic or political action against Cuba, not military.”

It was another example of Congress taking charge of foreign policy in a way unthinkable in the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson years. Congress used the same power it had exercised to force Nixon to pull out of Vietnam, the power of the purse. On January 27, 1976, despite last-minute appeals from Ford and Kissinger, the House voted 323 to 99 to ban covert military aid to Angola. A frustrated President Ford accused the Congress of having “lost its guts.”

Perhaps so, but to many Americans it seemed that Congress was finally living up to its responsibilities and in the process exerting a much-needed restraining influence on the adventurers in the CIA and the White House. That the MPLA won in Angola scarcely seemed a crucial development to a Congress that was less worried about American prestige in Africa, more concerned with costs, and less willing to charge at the sound of the trumpets than the CIA. In 1976, for example, when Ethiopia and Somalia were on the verge of war, the CIA was ready to intervene on the Ethiopian side, on the grounds that the Soviets were arming Somalia with modern weapons and that Cuban advisers had joined the Somali forces. Kissinger agreed with the CIA, but Congress was suspicious, and with a new administration’s coming to power in Washington, nothing was done. A year later, in the fall of 1977, the Russians were expelled from Somalia and began to arm Ethiopia. The CIA then urged the Carter administration to intervene on behalf of Somalia.

At the southernmost tip of Africa is the Republic of South Africa, almost in another world, a world that the ruling whites said they were determined to defend forever. Around the rest of the world, since 1945, the main political movement had been either in the direction of majority rule or toward socialist collectivism. Colonial rule had all but disappeared (outside the Soviet Union). It was true that one-party rule in the socialist states was a far cry from any real democracy, but it is also true that in the past forty years the world had managed to rid itself of many monarchies and one-man dictatorships. And the socialist states were committed, in theory at least, to such principles as equality of opportunity, education, and basic rights.

South Africa moved in the other direction, away from democracy and away from the idea of equality of all citizens under the law. Since World War II, South African racial policies had steadily hardened. As her economy boomed, she needed more black labor. As black participation in the economy increased, the level of repression to enforce apartheid was stepped up. Real wages were lowered, black political dissidents were arrested and murdered; absolute separation of the races vigorously enforced. South Africa came, to be a police state that, if it did not rival Hitler’s death camps or Stalin’s labor camps, its bitter realities, like modern Russia’s psychiatric wards, were still abhorred by the rest of the world.

South Africa, though an international pariah, was also a marvelous investment opportunity because of cheap labor and the mineral wealth of the country. Profits were high, risks low. Some private American investment money had inevitably found its way into South Africa, but not to be compared with the levels of American investment in Europe, the Middle East, or Latin America. Total American investment in South Africa in 1973 was $1.2 billion, representing a 73 percent increase in the years of the Nixon administration, which was not much greater than the rate of inflation. The $1.2 billion was about one third of the total American investment in Africa, and about 15 percent of the total foreign investment in South Africa. The United States also sold South Africa roughly 17 percent of her imports. South Africa produced 60 percent of the Western world’s gold, and was the third-largest supplier of uranium. In addition, the United States had a NASA satellite-tracking station and an Air Force tracking station in South Africa, and the Navy wanted port facilities on or near the Cape, one of the most strategic points in the world.

Taken altogether, that was not a large investment. The United States had no vital interest in South Africa. Further, on the grounds of civil rights, it was obviously impossible for any American politician to take a pro-South African stance (the last to do so was Dean Acheson, who was notoriously pro-South Africa). It was nearly as difficult to propose policies that would force South Africa to move toward majority rule. Consequently, American policy toward South Africa was mixed and confused. On the one hand the United States did maintain diplomatic relations; on the other hand Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in the early sixties took the lead in the United Nations in denouncing apartheid. The United States government had never forbidden investment in South Africa, and Nixon came close to actually encouraging it, despite the fact that the United States had led the effort in 1963 to establish a UN arms embargo on South Africa.

To the south of Angola lies Namibia (Southwest Africa), a colony of South Africa. The United States had insisted that South Africa’s continued domination of Namibia was illegal,32 to the point that President Nixon, acting at Kissinger’s insistence, informed potential American investors that the United States would henceforth discourage investment in Namibia. In any event, Namibia’s major—almost only—export is manpower for the South African mines. Pretoria was not willing to give up this source of cheap, reliable, hard-working labor. As NSSM 39 summed up the problem in Namibia: “No solution in sight. South Africa is entrenching its rule and has extended its application of apartheid and repressive measures. South Africa considers the area vital to its security and an economic asset.”

Africa’s cultural and economic ties are with Europe. The great bulk of African students are enrolled in Western European universities, not in American or Russian schools, and the level of Western European trade with and investment in Africa is much higher than that of either superpower. English and French are the “modern” and common languages of Africa, and African English is spoken with a British, not an American, accent. Africa is more a European than an American problem.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!