SOUTH African President Pieter Botha caused a flurry of diplomatic speculation on March 4 by proposing Aug. 1 as the date to begin carrying out United Nations Resolution 435 for the independence of Namibia, the Texas-size former German colony that Pretoria has controlled since World War I. President Botha's deadline raises new hopes for an agreement that would end an 18-year-old war, free the last of the white-ruled states except for South Africa, and reduce the Soviet-Cuban stronghold in Angola. In fact, setting the August date marks a deadlock in 10 years of US-led diplomacy and the onset of a new militancy toward resolving regional conflict. The upshot of this shift is that US influence in southern Africa is diminished, the cycle of violence is fueled, and the United States is embroiled in a no-win fight with the Soviets.
Serious Namibia negotiations began in the closing months of the Ford administration, when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that he could prevent ``another Angola'' through high-level shuttle diplomacy with South Africa. The Carter administration broadened the effort, including in the talks its NATO allies (the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, and Canada); the front-line states (Angola, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, and Zimbabwe); South Africa; and the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), the liberation movement fighting for independence. Settlement seemed within reach by 1980, but South Africa backed down at the last minute when Ronald Reagan's inauguration offered Pretoria the prospect of a better deal.
The Reagan administration made a Namibia settlement the central goal of its African policy and added a critical new dimension -- linking it to the removal of Cuban troops from Angola.
Though it had not raised the Cuban issue before, South Africa immediately saw the evident benefits of this gambit. Linkage would draw the US into the Angolan quagmire; legitimize Pretoria's own intervention there; shift responsibility for Namibian settlement (or lack of it) to Luanda, Havana, and Moscow; and further delay carrying out the UN plan to give Pretoria time to erode SWAPO's position and strengthen internal parties.
Over the past five years, several deadlines have come and gone. Each time the sticking point has been the now-entrenched South African position on withdrawal of some 30,000 Cuban troops.
Why did Mr. Botha come up with a date at this time if it represents nothing new? Because the US asked him to. Angolan authorities suggested in January that Pretoria show its willingness to settle. This was probably a disingenuous attempt to buy time while Luanda prepares a military offensive against UNITA, which was expected at the end of the rainy season in late April or May. The US pushed South Africa to fix a date. Botha's action also gave the US something to put on the table during ongoing diplomatic talks on the UN peace plan.
Mr. Reagan's decision to supply military aid to Jonas Savimbi in Angola kills any remaining chance of reaching a settlement on Namibia within the term of this administration. Angola's ``deeply outraged'' protest of US policy, interpreted as an act of war, was conveyed in a March 18 letter to UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'eller from Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos. Mr. dos Santos accused the US of reneging on a previous understanding that it would not become militarily involved, rejected US credentials as an honest broker, and called on the UN to take over.
The failure to reach a settlement on Namibia does not, in itself, represent a major foreign policy defeat for the US. Washington has no vital interests at stake in the territory. By abandoning diplomacy for military intervention, however, it is opening a new chapter on policy in southern Africa that drags the US into a civil war; distracts it from playing a positive role in South Africa, where it does have vital interests at stake; and sets it up for a confrontation with the Cubans and Soviets that is both unwise and unnecessary.
The US has set a course that separates it from its NATO partners and the bulk of African states -- except, of course, for South Africa, which is delighted by the prospect of the US coming in on its side. To blacks in South Africa, however, the US is adopting an indefensible double standard. While telling them to eschew violence in their resistance to the tyranny of apartheid, the US is turning to violence as a method of resisting the tyranny of communism. The US defends its support of Mr. Savimbi as a principled commitment to ``freedom fighters,'' but denies the black South African struggle for basic human rights a comparable moral equivalence.
Some argue that getting out on a limb in Angola, forfeiting a settlement in Namibia, and losing credibility in South Africa are worth the price of raising the costs of Soviet and Cuban adventurism.
The irony is that, in the long run, the costs will be greater for the United States.
Moscow has invested $2 billion in military aid (four times as much as in Nicaragua) over the last two years in Angola and shows no signs of weakening resolve. Indeed, during one of South Africa's previous invasions of Angola which threatened Luanda last year, Moscow took the extraordinary step of flatly warning Pretoria through diplomatic channels that it would not stand by and permit the overthrow of the MPLA government. In a recent speech, Fidel Castro stated that his troops would remain in Angola as long as apartheid survives. Having abandoned the diplomatic option, the only hope of raising the costs for the Soviet bloc is to match its level of military involvement or, equally unacceptable, to help South Africa do it for the United States.
There are regional conflicts, such as Afghanistan, in which a strong case can be made for US aid to anti-Soviet insurgents as a means of advancing American interests. But outright Soviet occupation of a neighboring third-world country with a puppet regime cannot be equated with Soviet aid requested by a sovereign government recognized by all major Western and African countries except for the US. The provision of top-of-the-line Stinger missiles to rebel forces in Afghanistan and Angola sets up a false analogy that cannot be sustained by the facts.
The deadlock on Namibia signals a wider shift in US policy which will inspire controversy in Washington, determination in Luanda, confidence in Pretoria, and satisfaction in Moscow.
Pauline H. Baker is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.