Washington — It could be called the Savimbi blitz. The bearded guerrilla leader, Jonas Savimbi, has launched an intensive two-week campaign of visits and media appearances in the United States to drum up support for his rebel movement in Angola. The visit has heated up the public debate over US policy in southern Africa.
Yesterday Mr. Savimbi met with President Reagan, who has called him a ``freedom fighter.'' But the President did not appear to make any concrete promises. ``We want to be very helpful to what Dr. Savimbi and his people are trying to do, and what we're trying to arrive at is the best way to do that,'' Mr. Reagan commented as he posed for pictures with the Angolan guerrilla leader in the Oval Office.
Conservative groups, which consider Savimbi a bastion against Soviet expansionism in southern Africa, have rolled out the red carpet. Many in Congress are also pushing for military and economic aid to the Angolan insurgents for their struggle against the Cuban-backed government in Luanda.
But congressional and diplomatic critics warn that providing help for the rebels will only escalate the conflict in Angola, forcing the Marxist government to seek more Cuban and Soviet help. Also, aid opponents say, helping Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola will alienate Africa's blacks, because UNITA is supported by the white-ruled government of South Africa.
In recent weeks the Reagan administration has conspicuously increased its rhetorical support of UNITA. By showing that it could aid Savimbi, the administration is pressuring the Marxist government of Angola to reach an agreement with South Africa leading to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the independence of Namibia, now under South African control.
The administration appears ambivalent, however. It has declared itself in support of ``covert'' aid. (The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the administration has secretly notified Congress that it intends to give $10 million to $15 million worth of covert military aid to UNITA, drawn from existing CIA reserves.)
But the administration opposes overt military or economic assistance to the rebel forces on grounds this might jeopardize a diplomatic settlement.
As part of the escalating pressure on Luanda, the State Department has obliquely warned American oil companies operating in Angola that their presence there may not be in the US national interest, because the hard currency earned by the Angolan government goes toward the war effort. ``They should be thinking about US national interests as well as their own corporate interests as they make their decisions,'' said US Assistant Secretary of State Chester A. Crocker this week.
Officials of Chevron/Gulf, the main oil producer in Angola, say they have received no official word of a change in US policy. So far Washington has supported the operations of Gulf Oil. The Export-Import Bank in fact provides loan guarantees and credits to enable US companies to do business in Angola.
``The administration has not contacted our management,'' says Stephen North, a Chevron spokesman. ``We also believe that what we are doing in Angola is in the national interest of this country. From what we read in the press, there seems to be a switch in US policy, but it's not clear what it's a switch to.''
Company officials point out that, if the US companies withdrew their operations in Angola, other Western firms would step in to pick up the business. ``There are many British, French, and Italian companies with their tongues hanging out,'' Mr. North says.
So far Washington's diplomatic effort to mediate an agreement between Angola and South Africa has not borne fruit. Mr. Crocker said this week that his recent talks in Pretoria and Luanda had produced no breakthroughs, although he indicated both sides were showing some flexibility. The US diplomatic effort now requires ``a degree of pressure that drives the parties toward a political compromise,'' he said.
The reason the administration is even considering help for the Angolan insurgents is that Congress last year repealed the so-called Clark amendment, which prohibited covert US aid to Angola. The repeal reopened the debate on the issue. But some members of the congressional intelligence committees have indicated they would support only open assistance.
This has left the administration publicly advocating an ``appropriate signal of support'' from Congress, perhaps in the form of a general resolution.
Although Savimbi has a reputation as a charismatic leader, many experts on Africa question his ideological credentials. ``He's an arch-opportunist and Maoist socialist who simply wants to run that country,'' says Donald Easum, director of the African-American Institute and former US ambassador to Nigeria.
Critics of administration policy say that Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos is more a pragmatist than a rabid Marxist. They contend he wants to introduce private enterprise and to deal with Western financial institutions. He has also made an effort to improve relations with the US. But, these critics say, given South Africa's repeated attacks into Angola and its continued support of the rebel forces, President Santos is forced to rely on Cuban troops.