What is accomplished for American foreigh policy by the United States veto of a Security Council resolution condemning South Africa's invasion of Angola? Britain abstained and France and China voted in favor. The United States weakly said that the resolution failed to take note of the presence of Soviet and Cuban personnel in Angola.
The veto is a part of the Reagan administration's as yet only incompletely articulated policy toward southern Africa. But its outlines seem clear: by befriending Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's South African government, and by holding out lots of carrots rather than sticks, the Reagan administration intends to elicit South African cooperation over Namibia. It also hopes to encourage internal change in South Africa.
In addition to the veto, and a failure publicly to criticize the invasion and earlier incursions into Angola, the Reagan administration has begun relaxing the longstanding US embargo of potentially strategic goods, has promised to train a South African coastal defense force and to expand military contacts, and has hinted at the appointment of an ambassadorial presence acceptable to South Africa.
The Reagan administration wants a settlement in Namibia. But it wants one which will enhance the security of all of southern Africa. It seems to reject the oft-stated Angolan position that Cuban and East German troops (about 20,000) and about 1,000 soviet advisers (one of whom was captured last month by the South Africans) can only be sent home after (not before) the future of Namibia is settled.
Angola suspects that South Africa is aiding the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the indigenous insurgent movement which controls a large chunk of southern Angola in opposition to the country's pro-Marxist government. If the Cubans went home, the Angolan government fears that it would be unable to resist a South African-supported UNITA. As August's showed, South Africa can penetrate southern Angola almost with impunity.
The South African invasion was an attempt to advertise its power. South Africa also wanted to weaken the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), the guerrilla organization which has been fighting since 1966 to free Namibia. Most of all, the South Africa wished to bring home at least one Soviet adviser to strengthen their claims to be assisting the West in defending the Southern Hemisphere from the spread of communism.
Yet SWAPO has long been Soviet-supported, and the fact that Soviet advisers are in southern Angola, along with Cubans, is no secret. Thus to stand mute when South Africa flexes its muscles hardly reassures the rest of Africa and America's allies about US intentions. Nor is it self-evident that silence (and a veto), which to the South African populace (both black and white) signifies strong US support for Pretoria, will bring about a settlement of the Namibian issue.
Since the holding of high-level American discussions with the South Africans in April and June, and further private representations, South Africa appears to have conceded nothing. This is so despite an American willingness to rewrite the terms of any transfer of power in Namibia to allay the anxieties of South Africa, to safeguard the future of the white minority in the territory, to inhibit a future government of the country from nationalizing land and industry, and to do something about the Cuban presence in Angola.
South Africa's reluctance to settle the Namibian issue is easily understood. Its army prefers to defend South Africa against potential guerrilla assault along distant borders rather than closer to home. A transfer of power which led to a Marxist state in Namibia could have severe domestic political consequences for Mr. Botha's government. Giving up a bargaining card for intangibles, promises, and hopes makes no sense to a government long accustomed to playing international poker well, and for high stakes.
South Africa still wants to find some way to prevent a supervised election in Namibia from bringing SWAPO to power. The only electoral alternative is the South African-sponsored Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), a white-led multi-ethnic party which provides the internal option. But the DTA is not yet widely accepted. Most Namibian and many official South African observers suspect that SWAPO's popularity cannot be overcome, especially among the Ovambo, the people who comprise half of the country's population.
Given South Africa's deep-seated reluctance to let Swapo come to power, and its reputation for taking American concessions and cordiality and asking for more, it is difficult to see peace in southern Africa being advanced by American softness. All it does is embolden the Soviets and legitimize their actions on behalf of liberation and the guerrilla struggle. It frightens African states, some of whom ship high-quality petroleum in large quantities to the United States.
Unless the Reagan administration can soon show something tangible for its warmth toward white South Africa, the US will lose what remains of its credibility in African without achieving anything in return. Ironically, too, the spread of global communism will thereby be enahnded, not deterred.