Conservatives in Congress may be in the process of overturning negotiations that the State Department contends could help stabilize mineral-rich but turbulent southern Africa.
But the conservatives themselves argue that by taking the teeth out of restrictions contained in the so-called Clark Amendment on Angola, they aim at giving more flexibility to American presidents, present and future. Such flexibility, they say, should permit a president to counter Soviet-sponsored actions in Africa, possibly through the use of American Central Intelligence Agency- sponsored actions now prohibited by law.
The negotiations in question have been conducted, in part, by the Carter administration with the Marxist government of Angola. State Department officials say the Angolan government is seeking closer ties with the West and gives signs of wanting to lessen its dependence on ties with the Soviet Union and Cuba.
But if the conservatives have their way -- and if Ronald Reagan is elected president of the United States -- the US could find itself once again intervening in Angola with support in the form of weapons supplies to the faction that is still fighting the Angolan government.
State Department officials argue that such intervention would place the US on the side of South Africa in that country's conflict with Angola and turn much of black Africa against the US. All this would in the end, they say, benefit only the Soviet Union.
The current dispute over Angola policy erupted after the US Senate voted last week to remove restrictions on the President, which, in effect, prohibited any US military aid being given to the rebels -- the conservatives would call them freedom fighters -- who continue to battle the central government in Angola.
The restrictions were contained in a 1976 amendment sponsored by then-Sen. Dick Clark (D) of Iowa. He and others feared deepening American involvement in the Angolan civil war. The CIA had, in fact, been involved in that war, aiding (among others) the rebel faction known as UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. Mr. Savimbi visited the United States several months ago to plead for a renewal of American support for his cause.
On June 17, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina introduced a new amendment aimed at repealing the Clark amendment. In an effort to dilute the force of the proposed Helms amendment, Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R) of New York joined Senator Helms to cosponsor the amendment, which ultimately passed. the House now must make its judgment on the amendment with a House/Senate conference meeting scheduled for June 25. If it became law, the amendment would allow the US to move ahead with aid to the Savimbi faction.
The State Department has taken the position that it will not oppose this amendment, because it gives the President more flexibility. But the department is going to great pains to emphasize that the Carter administration has no intention of intervening in Angola and that would include a continuing refusal of aid to the Savimbi faction. Department officials contend that Angola has been playing a constructive role in negotiations involving the United Nations and the US and its key allies in their attempts to bring about a peaceful solution to the guerrilla war in Namibia, or South West Africa.
But Mr. Reagan, the Republican presidential candidate, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last month that, as President, he would favor providing Mr. Savimbi with weapons.
When asked about the State Department contention that such a renewal of aid to the Savimbi faction might derail negotiations with Angola, an aide to Senator Helms declared that the department was engaging in "hackneyed arguments . . . which we've been hearing with regard to many different areas around the world where Soviet involvement has been increasing."
In a statement on the subject June 17, Senator Helms claimed several hundred Nicaraguan troops have made an appearance in Angola alongside the Cuban Already there. But State Department officials said they had no evidence to support this claim and that there had, in fact, been some suggestions from diplomatic sources that the number of Cuban troops in Angola had been reduced by several thousand since last fall.