Wolves in the Hills

An extended review of High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood by Chester Crocker. Published in Transition, Issue 60.


The policy of "constructive engagement" was billed by the Reagan Administration as a way to promote change by maintaining dialogue with all the countries of Southern Africa. As Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker was the principal architect of that policy. Crocker took over the Bureau of African Affairs at the age of 39, and remained for eight years, longer than any other Assistant Secretary in State Department history. The son of an investment banker, he had earlier spent two years as "utility infielder" for the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger before becoming the director of an African program at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The distinctive feature of constructive engagement was what has been characterized as an "all carrot and no stick" approach to South Africa. The US engaged in "quiet diplomacy" with Pretoria while lifting sanctions imposed earlier, and strenuously opposing the passage of new ones by the United Nations and Congress. Critics argued that by giving South Africa more breathing room, we allowed it to delay the independence of Namibia, repress anti-apartheid protest, and attack its neighboring states with impunity.

Relatively little has been said and written about the effects of "constructive engagement" on Angola, but in terms of human suffering that may be its most devastating legacy. Angola has been at war for over thirty years. The liberation struggle that lasted from 1961 to 1975 was followed immediately by a civil war that, except for a respite of a year or so between the ceasefire agreement of May 1991 and the Angolan elections of September 1992, has lasted up to the present moment.

On the surface, Chester Crocker's new book High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood is the tale of how a carefully crafted "two-track" US foreign policy brought independence to Namibia and put Angola on the road to "national reconciliation" and a peaceful future. In reality, the book tells the shameful story of how the Crocker strategy strengthened the South African regime, delayed its withdrawal from Namibia, and prolonged a war that has cost Angola well over $30 billion and 350,000 lives: totals that are still mounting.

Angola's independence began with a scramble for power. After Portugal's right-wing dictatorship was overthrown by a military coup in 1974, the new Portuguese government pulled out of Angola and Mozambique in what Crocker accurately terms "indecent haste ... leaving behind a disastrous vacuum of power." Three liberation movements-- the FNLA, MPLA, and UNITA -- signed the Alvor Agreement in January 1975, promising to set up a transitional government that would oversee elections in October. But the Portuguese in Angola did not intend to wait around to ensure that this happened. "The Alvor Agreement was, in reality, a figleaf to cover Portuguese disengagement." By February the agreement was already in ruins, as the FNLA began attacking the MPLA in Luanda and northern Angola.

The three guerrilla armies battled against a deadline: whoever controlled Luanda on Independence Day, November 11, would become the new government. Foreign powers sent money and weapons to their favored army. The Soviet Union and Cuba were backing the MPLA. South Africa and Zaire supported UNITA. So did the US, urged on by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and hawks in the CIA. In his book In Search of Enemies, John Stockwell -- then the head of the CIA's Angola Task Force -- quoted a superior who insisted that it was Kissinger who was pushing the CIA into covert operations in Angola: "Kissinger saw the Angolan conflict solely in terms of global politics and was determined the Soviets should not be permitted to make a move in any remote part of the world without being confronted militarily by the United States." On the other hand, both the US consul general and the CIA station chief in the Angolan capital of Luanda believed "that the MPLA was best qualified to run the country, that it was not demonstrably hostile to the United States, and that the United States should make peace with it as quickly as possible."

The MPLA controlled Luanda and most of Angola's provincial capitals. In July 1975 its forces succeeded in defeating an FNLA attack from the north, after which the FNLA was never again a major player. The real threat came from UNITA, based in the south where it could draw on the military power South Africa had concentrated in its captive territory of Namibia. In late October, shortly before independence, a South African column of Panhard armored vehicles raced northward into Angola, meeting little resistance on its way to Luanda until an MPLA army reinforced by Cuban troops managed to stop them.


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