BEHIND the highly visible public appearances of Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi in the United States lie fundamental issues. Foremost is whether the American policy of attempting negotiation has been working in trying to bring accord to Angola, or whether it would work if continued. If the Soviet and Cuban sponsors of Angola's current government continued their apparent military drive against Mr. Savimbi's rebels, would they ultimately wipe them out? And if they did, what would be the ramifications of having Cuban troops and Soviet military advisers at the border of Namibia, which is controlled by the forces of South Africa? These concerns underlie the growing sentiment in Washington, with moderates joining conservatives, for aid to Savimbi, including military assistance. Savimbi is now in the American capital, pleading his case.
Reports are contradictory as to whether the Reagan administration will officially request military help. But from what is known, it can be presumed that some assistance will be provided this year, either openly through a vote of Congress, or covertly through funds provided by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The rejuvenated negotiations in prospect between Angola's government and Savimbi, however, still appear the best route to take. Armed support for Savimbi ought to be held out as a possibility if the Angolan government still refuses to negotiate.
Supporters of military aid hold that many black African leaders would not be deeply hostile to US backing for Savimbi, if done clandestinely. This thinking holds that many African leaders are uneasy about the presence of 35,000 Cuban troops; if Savimbi were conquered, would the Cubans try to destabilize other nations?
It is a valid concern. But it is more probable that in the eyes of black Africa, US sponsorship of Savimbi would firmly link America with South Africa, since Savimbi thus far has been aided by Pretoria. Washington should not now appear to align itself with South Africa.
Finally, no military support should be provided Savimbi -- or any guerrilla leader elsewhere -- without its being clear what the United States hoped to achieve. No goal has yet been adequately articulated, let alone debated. Action without national consensus runs the serious risk of ultimate failure, as America's Vietnam experience ought to have warned.
Would the purpose of military aid, in the case of Savimbi, be to overthrow the current government? This is highly unlikely, given current Cuban support. Would it be merely to occupy the Cuban troops, keep them from the Namibian border, and prevent the Angolan government from consolidating control of the country? This would be more feasible: But would more Cuban troops be added -- and, if they were, what would Washington do next?
The hubbub stirred by the Savimbi visit should not substitute for thoughtful consideration of the Angolan question. To this point the Reagan administration has been on the right track in trying to deescalate the fighting through negotiation. This effort should continue.