To Reagan: don't blow it in the Horn of Africa

The Reagan administration has been too busy with other crises to pay much attention to the Horn of Africa. This is just as well, for rushing to deliver arms to Somalia in its conflict with Ethiopia will neither promote peace in the region nor restore the US position there. Reagan policy-makers should take a new look at the Horn and develop a comprehensive approach that serves both local and free world interests.

In the wake of Iranian and Afghan events, President Carter felt compelled to do something. His aides who had had experience in the Horn kept arguing against military assistance for Somali President Siad. Intelligence reports confirmed continued Somali military operations in the Ogaden despite Siad's denials.

By the beginning of the current year, however, the Ethiopians succeeded in pushing most Somali regulars back across the border. In its final move on the Horn, the Carter administration advised Congress that, since Somali troops were no longer fighting on Ethiopian territory, military aid to Somalia could now begin.

This was specious reasoning and dishonest intelligence analysis. Somalia still supplies arms to guerrilla forces in Ethiopia and diverts food and medicine to them from supplies which the US and the UN send for refugees. Somali propagandists and political officers are still preaching a new offensive against Ethiopia and are trying to convince their now skeptical people that American aid will enable them to win.

In Somalia itself, Siad has never disbanded the Soviet-style police state the Russians built for him. The country, poor in resources, is close to economic collapse. What little productivity there is goes to support the guerrilla war in Ethiopia. Most of the Somali tribesmen Siad has been "liberating" in the Ogaden are now crammed into squalid camps where children succumb to disease and the men are pressed into military service. This ghastly refugee mess threatens to become a Palestinian-style obstacle to any permanent settlement in the Horn.

While the Russians have provided most of the arms with which both sides are fighting, it is the US which pays most of the cost of the refugees. Few Americans realize that the Carter administration spent nearly $100 million on refugees in the Horn in fiscal 1980. Current spending may be at an even higher rate. It is lunacy for the US government, in the name of misguided humanitarianism, to go on helping these people while shirking political initiatives that could eliminate the cause of the strife and return the refugees to their home territory.

Both Ethiopia and Somalia provide appalling examples of the price countries can pay for the Soviet embrace. Somali aggression against Ethiopia, launched with Soviet-supplied arms and carried out by soldiers and guerrillas trained for years by Russian and Cuban advisers, is at the root of current problems in the Horn. The fact that the Russians rushed $2 billion worth of arms and 20,000 Cubans into Ethiopia in the winter of 1977-78 to blunt the Somali offensive does not legitimize Somali claims or transform the Somali assault on Ethiopia, which has been continued ever since, into a genuine liberation struggle.

Nor has the fact that Siad broke with the Soviets changed him into a democrat or turned his Somali socialist system into a free pluralist society. The military and financial aid which Sadat, the Saudis, and some other Arabs (as well as the Shah of Iran until his fall) gave to Siad was shortsighted. It prolonged strife which enabled the Soviets to consolidate their position in Ethiopia.

Soviet preference for Ethiopia over Somalia is not surprising. With 35 million people (against Somalia's 3.5 million) and varied resources, Ethiopia is the most important country in the Horn. For years, when they had no foothold in ethiopia, the Soviets supplied arms to the Eritreans; some of their clients are still doing so. Continued conflict in Eritrea and with Somalia serves Soviet purposes but no one else's. It locks the Ethiopian revolutionary leadership into dependence on Russian arms.

A US approach to the Horn centered on the weakest and most troublesome country there makes no sense. The two most responsible countries in the region --Kenya and Sudan -- found the Carter administration's preoccupation with Somalia shortsighted. They were appalled at Henry Kissinger's call for an even warmer embrace of Siad and are thankful that the Reagan administration has so far not followed his advice. The Sudanese have been tireless in trying to reduce the conflict in Eritrea. The Kenyans have kept up dialogue with Ethiopian leaders and are ready to help the US explore better relations.

This will not be easy and should involve no compromise of basic American principles. The US never opposed the Ethiopian revolution. We, like most of the rest of the world, condemned revolutionary excesses. The military leadership has moderated its approach to its own people -- the Red Terror is past -- but vicious rhetoric against American and all Western values continues.

The media in Ethiopia are devoid of news of Poland and Afghanistan, as well as of America and Europe, but the daily praise of the Soviet Union knows no bounds. This is peculiar in a country that claims to be nonaligned.

But a mature world power should respond not to rhetoric, but to actions. The Ethiopian leadership has taken several steps in recent months to demonstrate readiness to revive US and Western ties. No one who spends a few days in the country and talks with a cross-section of people can have any doubt about the persistent pro-Western orientation of Ethiopians. Their revolution and its aftermath have been a trying time for them. It has laid the basis for broad economic development, but the Russians have nothing to offer the country in this respect.

The Somali people, for their part, as talented as any in Africa, certainly deserve better than they have received from their leadership over the past decade. There are signs that patience with Siad is wearing thin.

There are opportunities for the Reagan administration in the Horn. It should make an effort to explore them.

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