WHEN President Clinton took office he made a major commitment to multilateral peacekeeping operations. So far he has been true to his word. There are 19,000 troops in Haiti; thousands more are scheduled for deployment in Kuwait. United States warplanes patrol the skies over Bosnia, and the United Nations wants a Marine brigade to form the rear guard for its exit from Somalia.
Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, American diplomats are now about to pledge a major US force to help police a truce in Angola.
The background is as follows: Africa's longest civil war has stretched for 19 years, longer than American participation in both World Wars and Vietnam combined. The casualties have been horrendous. Out of 11 million Ango-lans, some 600,000 are dead. The total number of wounded is unknown. Another 3 million persons are displaced.
The conflict, part tribal, part ideological, became an element of the cold war thanks to Soviet and Cuban ambitions, which the Americans belatedly began to check in the first Reagan administration.
But Moscow and Havana have long called it quits and Washington has since withdrawn its patronage of guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi and UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Nevertheless, the war went on.
The peace talks in Lusaka, Zambia, are sponsored by Portugal, Russia, and the US. They began in January and now appear on the verge of success. But observers can be permitted a note of skepticism. A US-UN agreement on Angola signed three years ago also promised to lead to peace, and elections.
Last year's vote, however, went wildly wrong. Although UN observers pronounced the contest fair and free, the fine print in their internal assessment suggested there was serious fraud. To this day, no one can be sure. The reason is that the international body tried to fix Angola on the cheap. There was not nearly enough outside supervision of the voting. Worse, the two warring sides were not completely disarmed before the balloting began.
The losers, from Mr. Savimbi's UNITA, cried foul and refused to accept the results. The former Marxist MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) belonging to the government in Luanda decided to strike quickly - wiping out much of UNITA's leadership then residing in the capital.
Savimbi escaped, rallied his remaining followers, and the war resumed. Another 200,000 have been killed while millions more approach starvation. The fighting still rages around major cities as diplomats in Lusaka frantically iron out the remaining differences.
The two sides have largely agreed on a power-sharing formula, to disarm and eventually form a new national army and police. The second round of the presidential elections would also be held, pitting the incumbent Jose Eduardo dos Santos against Savimbi.
Problems remain. Savimbi's recent months-long dropping from sight is one. Although he reappeared late last month, according to UN officials, his disappearance was unsettling to his followers. There may have been an assassination attempt against him. It's no secret that the MPLA would like to eliminate Savimbi, hoping his death would mean the end of UNITA. Such is the level of trust between the two sides in Angola.
In any case, Americans won't be able to simply forget Angola. Here's one reason: A major factor in the last election fiasco was the shortage of UN personnel to monitor, much less enforce, the disarmament process. This time, both the UN and Washington are determined to get it right.
Instead of 50 unarmed blue berets, the coming peace plan calls for some 7,000 armed UN soldiers. The sponsors are all expected to provide troops. There's a certain justice to this. Portugal is the former colonial power whose abrupt departure in 1975 virtually guaranteed the ensuing carnage. And the Portuguese expect to reap huge profits once the reconstruction begins. Russia, of course, in its former iteration, the Soviet Union, supplied the bulk of the firepower that still keeps the body count mounting. And the US, even more so than white-ruled South Africa, helped Savimbi's movement to survive.
BUT this peacekeeping operation will be no risk-free ride in the bush. It will be a dangerous assignment, amid two military forces far more heavily armed than anything found in Somalia or Haiti. Stretched to the limit, downsizing the Pentagon, and still at an impasse with North Korea - despite the recent agreement - this administration needs to adopt a strategy to separate the vital from the inconsequential when making international commitments.
The cold war is, after all, over. What was deemed an important, if not vital, national interest by three administrations cannot be so labeled now. Perhaps now is the time to take Nelson Mandela at his word, and prevail on free South Africa to contribute to UN peacekeeping forces in Angola. After all, a peaceful southern Africa is above all in Pretoria's interest.
Let it send troops - and relieve pressure on US troops already so widely overdeployed by President Clinton elsewhere.
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