When Qaddafi plays with the Horn

The Libyan-Ethiopian-South Yemeni alliance which Libyan ruler Qaddafi launched in Aden recently looks ominous. It could usher in a new period of turmoil in the Horn of Africa.

Tensions have been subsiding in this troubled part of the world during the past year. Longstanding pro-Western sentiment and economic realities have caused a slight cooling of the Soviet-Ethiopian love affair. But the new alliance with Qaddafi puts a big question mark over hopes for better days in the Horn.

Qaddafi is rumored to have offered Ethiopian leader Mengistu $900 million to play a role as partner in his new Horn-South Arabian ventures. The plan is said to include takeover of North Yemen by the Aden regime, revival of the Dhofar rebellion to punish Oman for its cooperation with the United States, and overthrow of Siad Barre by the Somali Salvation Front (SSF).

The challenge to the US is in the large political consequences of the new Qaddafi-led alliance for the whole region. Qaddafi's scheme must have Soviet encouragement, for it is essentially an updating of the same proposition Fidel Castro tried to sell in March 1977. The aim then was to federate all Horn countries and South Yemen, contain tensions between them, and lock the whole region into firm Soviet grip.

First priorities are to regain influence in Somalia and exploit the revolutionary zeal of the South Yemenis to extend their influence over all of South Arabia. Behind these short-term objectives are the long-term goals of (1) destabilization of Saudi Arabia; (2) consolidation of the Soviethold on Ethiopia to the point of irreversibility; and (3) eventually turning both Sudan and Kenya away from the West.

Mengistu had become increasingly upset about Soviet miserlines with economic aid. While coffee exports and prices have declined, oil import costs and needs have risen steadily, almost wiping out Ethiopia's foreign exchange reserves. If it were allowed to enjoy the benefits of the "green revolution" and Western agricultural know-how, Ethiopia has the potential to be a breadbasket for the entire region. As matters stand, it is having difficulty feeding itself, and popular dissatisfaction with poor food distribution is growing. Dergue ideologues want to advance from the present system of loose peasant associations to full-scale collectivization.

Western-educated technicians, who are still plentiful, and what remains of an entrepreneurial class in Ethiopia, know that the only way the country can develop to meet the expectations of its rapidly growing population -- which may be approaching 40 million -- is by drawing on Western skill, aid, and investment. Already West European countries, the EEC, and international lending agencies are providing far more development aid to Ethiopia than the Soviet Union and its friends. Even the US still provides food and medical supplies for refugees and drought victims.

It is nevertheless easy to see why Qaddafi's money is tempting to Mengistu. It can rescue him from an impending balance-of-payments crisis. It gives his ideologues justification for new initiatives to advance "socialism" in spite of the arguments of the pragmatists. It must calm his fears that Qaddafi might still be helping Eritrean and Tigrean Marxist insurgents.

But all these comforts could be short-lived. It will not be a gain for Ethiopia to have its warming relations with Kenya and Sudan worsened. Alliance with Libya and Sudan men -- the two countries that come closest to being regarded as international outlaws for their support of terrorism and subversion everywhere -- will not help Ethiopia's image nor encourage former friends to provide the kind of aid Ethiopia cannot get from the Soviet bloc.

Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that linking up with Qaddafi will reverse the feeling Mengistu might be evolving into a genuine Ethiopian nationalist.

Mengistu may calculate that he can exploit Qaddafi just as he has exploited the Soviets and the Cubans, without falling into the trap of total dependency. But a financial-economic rescue operation is very different from a massive inflow of military aid. Unless it generates momentum that can become self-sustaining, the money will be wasted.

Qaddafi is fickle. His oil wealth is not great enough to provide an indefinite flow of funds to a socialist Ethiopia whose prospects of paying its own way in the world become poorer the longer it remains committed to communism.

The Reagan administration has moved slowly in the Horn. Somalia is not a centerpiece of US Middle East/Indian Ocean planning. Doors remain open for an improved US-Ethiopian relationship. Nothing could close and lock them so firmly as a fully implemented alliance between Mengistu and Qaddafi. The White House has recently underscored its antipathy toward him. It would be unfortunate indeed if Mengistu, after years of avoiding a total break with the US, were to give the Reagan government no alternative but to shift to a policy of implacable hostility toward Ethiopia.

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