THE bitter conflict on the ground in Angola and growing diplomatic concerns present President Clinton with another immediate foreign policy challenge in dealing with the legacy of the cold-war era.
"The ending of the cold war does re-orient things," says Chester Crocker, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs who initiated a complex regional settlement process in Angola.
President Jose Eduardo dos Santos made an appeal to Clinton Jan. 25 in a letter to the new US president and in a Monitor interview. He argued that, as the sponsors of the rebel movement during the 16-year civil war, the US has a special responsibility to recognize the democratically elected government in Luanda.
Mr. dos Santos said that, as one of the three guarantors of the peace process, the US should distance itself from the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) - whose tactics include the kidnapping of foreign nationals and the destruction of economic targets.
"To maintain a position which does not recognize Angola, is to favor UNITA," Dos Santos told the Monitor.
"We are giving serious consideration to the question of recognition," the US State Department said in a statement Jan. 25. International opinion
In the past two weeks, the tide of international opinion has been turning against UNITA and in favor of the MPLA.
"The urgency of the Angolan challenge is underscored by the fact that the two parties to the peace process are locked in a bitter, undeclared war which could cost tens of thousands of lives and drag on for years if the international community washes its hands of Angola," a Western diplomat in South Africa says.
"Given the presence of US oil interests in the northern enclave of Cabinda, Angola could end up as an even greater problem than Somalia five years down the line."
Angolan officials argue that the US shares blame for the inadequate manpower and resources of the United Nations mission in Angola and the fact that it failed to ensure UNITA's demobilization.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has recommended that a scaled-down UN monitoring group should quit Angola by the end of April if the government forces and UNITA rebels have not resumed negotiations. The UN was expected to begin a round of discussions Jan. 26 on its UN presence in Angola.
Western diplomats in Luanda say a cease-fire will top the agenda at talks between MPLA and UNITA military leaders scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 27. They add that the MPLA has backed down on its refusal to discuss political issues - apparently because of UNITA's military advances.
The United States began giving military support to UNITA in response to massive Soviet support for the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the intervention of Cuban troops shortly after independence in 1975.
After the signing of the Bicesse peace accords in May 1991, the Bush administration indicated it would establish formal diplomatic ties after September elections.
The US delayed recognition after the poll, the first democratic elections in Angola. The MPLA won a decisive majority in parliament, but Dos Santos just failed to achieve the 50 percent required in the presidential ballot to avoid a runoff. UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi rejected the results, charging the poll was fraudulent, and renewed the fighting.
The collapse of the peace process since the vote - and the country's steady descent into an undeclared civil war - has focused new attention on Angola. Neither side can win
After two weeks of fighting in which UNITA has made significant gains in the central and northern provinces, the war appears to have reached a precarious stalemate. UNITA forces have begun to encircle the capital and cut off Luanda's main water supply Jan. 24.
"Neither the government nor UNITA can win the war," said Lopo do Nascimento, a senior Dos Santos adviser, during a visit to South Africa Jan. 25.
"Even if UNITA succeeds in taking over the oil and diamonds [two industries vital to Angola's economy] and surrounds the capital, it will not alter the position of the UN that the September elections were free and fair," he said. "But we accept that if both parties fail to reach agreement by the end of April, the international community will withdraw and the war could drag on."
Mr. Crocker, now a professor at Georgetown University, says the US should remain engaged in Angola but has to guard against playing the recognition card without bolstering the democracy process.
"Recognition is one lever but we should get something for it. Angola is a rich country. We should see our involvement through. We seem to be the only ones who can make a difference," he says.
US diplomats also point to the dismal human rights record on both sides and the apparent reluctance of Dos Santos to condemn political killings by armed civilians with the connivance of his special police.
"Timing is essential," says a congressional aide close to US policy on Africa. "You don't send a signal that keeps the war going. We should have recognized the MPLA in October when UNITA pulled out. Now we have a different set of conditions."