THE Reagan administration continues to procrastinate on providing aid to UNITA forces in Angola. It opposes providing overt aid to guerrilla fighters led by Jonas Savimbi on grounds it would be needlessly provocative. But neither is the administration quite ready to offer covert assistance. Embarrassed by the failure of constructive engagement to promote rapid racial progress in South Africa, the State Department is reluctant to do anything that would put the United States on the same side with Pretoria. Also, Secretary of State George Shultz and his assistant secretary for African affairs, Chester Crocker, are reportedly eager to compensate for the lack of progress in dismantling apartheid by succeeding in resolving the issue of Namibia's independence. They fear that giving support to Mr.
Savimbi may discourage the Angolan government from agreeing to a stage-by-stage withdrawal of Cuban troops.
The arguments against helping UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) are as numerous as they are unpersuasive. Savimbi's association with South Africa causes particular outrage. But nobody in the respectable political spectrum claims that this black nationalist, with a distinguished record of anticolonial struggle, is an admirer of apartheid. Nor is there any evidence that he is in Pretoria's pocket. He had no alternative but to accept South African assistance or surrender. Should h e be blamed for refusing to commit political suicide and to abandon his fight?
If he should -- as even some very thoughtful liberals such as Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York insist -- let's think about the consequences of applying the same vigorous standard to other rebel movements. Mr. Solarz, for instance, in front of television cameras recently, warmly embraced the African National Congress president, Oliver Tambo. The ANC admits that its weapons and funding are coming from Moscow.
If taking arms from the Kremlin does not disqualify Mr. Tambo and his associate Nelson Mandela from being perceived as legitimate nationalist leaders, why, except for this double standard, should Savimbi be treated any differently?
As for giving priority to negotiating a Namibia settlement and the Cuban withdrawal from Angola, it is unclear why these should be viewed as being more in the US interest than helping UNITA. Realistically, Luanda's condition for Cuban withdrawal would turn over the power in Namibia to radicals of the South-West Africa People's Organization, who would cut Savimbi's lifeline with the world. With UNITA effectively finished and Angola's Marxist regime firmly in control, the Cubans indeed may begin to depart . But why should it be an aim of American diplomacy to aid in the victory of a Soviet-allied government?
We are also told that supporting UNITA is supporting a lost cause. Savimbi cannot win against 35,000 Cuban soldiers. Perhaps. But he at least occupies them and discourages Moscow and Havana from further adventures.
Another charge is that Savimbi may be unworthy of US support because he may not be committed to Western-style pluralism. It is even alleged that in the past he had Maoist sympathies. So what? Ronald Reagan used to be a liberal Democrat. People do change their minds. In addition, what fascinated Savimbi about Maoism was not its socioeconomic model, but rather a focus on guerrilla warfare. Today, UNITA professes its commitment to democracy. More important than verbal assurances is the indisputable fact th at Savimbi's forces have a good human rights record. Their record is certainly better than that of the Nicaraguan ``contras'' or the Afghan rebels already generously supported by the US.
Nor should the administration be deterred by the argument that most African states would oppose US aid to Savimbi.
The vast majority of African countries are ruled by authoritarian regimes, with varying degrees of brutality. They are not the best judges of morality, especially since quite a few of them are willing to do business with South Africa when it suits their interests.
The US is hardly dependent upon African nations: They need us, not vice versa. Most of them oppose UNITA, but that sentiment does not outweigh their need for good relations with the US.
Providing support to UNITA may in the long run promote the possibility of power sharing in Angola. It would send a signal to those fighting Soviet-supported regimes that Washington is not indifferent to their plight. Most important, by upgrading the costs of Moscow's expansionism, the assistance to Savimbi would contribute to a more moderate Soviet foreign policy. Such a policy is a precondition for a better US-USSR relationship. For the sake of d'etente, Savimbi should be offered a helping hand from th e US.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.