- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

One of the stranger episodes of the Cold War is the story Piero Gleijeses tells us in "Conflicting Missions." It is a story of revolutionary ambition (perhaps to be confused with personal ambition) in unlikely places and America's response to all that.

Mr. Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, covers more than a quarter-century of struggle on that part of the African continent that stretches from Algeria to Namibia. The author can do so at length and still paint with a fine brush. The detail largely based on interviews and documents from archives can be quite striking. He convinces me that Cuba, for example, acted on its own in supporting "revolutionaries" in the eastern Congo and Angola. The Cubans were not mere Soviet surrogates, puppets, or any other of the impolite things they were being called by Cold Warriors at the time.

At least, not until after 1976, which is the author's cut-off date. But that leaves us with just two sentences on the Cuban-Soviet adventure in the Horn of Africa in support of the murderous regime in Addis Ababa. Nor can it explain why the Cubans not to mention the Soviets who made up for their earlier caution kept right on fighting for the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) even after it became hopelessly corrupt and brutal.

That aside, Mr. Gleijeses does come close to explaining Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's motives for being involved on a continent that few Cubans until then knew or cared about. Of course, a good deal of this is guesswork since the top Cuban leadership has not provided any interviews or given a detailed account of what they are doing other than the usual revolutionary bromides. Havana's archives have, however, been opened up a crack for the author thanks to his persistence, for which he deserves both credit and admiration. (The Soviet archives remain sealed shut.)

In contrast, Mr. Gleijeses uses the abundant, once secret American record and treats it fairly. He, quite rightly, cites the generally competent analysis of the U.S. intelligence services, but deplores the nation's top leadership for not acting on their work. So what else is new? Analysts, for one thing, are not driven by political concerns such as remaining in office. Politicians, need we say it, do, and will always do so as long as they are held responsible to the electorate. It may be messy, but it beats what Havana's self-appointed leaders did in Africa, largely kept secret from their own people.

Although generally sympathetic to Cuba's involvement in Africa, the author demolishes what's left of Guevara's reputation as a guerrilla commander. His attempt to support the Simbas in the old Belgian Congo in 1965 falls just short of being ludicrous. He knew nothing about them, less about the Congo his plan: to conquer that vast chaotic, central African melange in three years and still less about what it takes to fight a war in Africa. In less than one year, he and his small group of Cubans were run out of the place by a rag-tag assortment of white mercenaries. His farewell address to the beaten, but brave companeros reveals much about Guevara's surly ingratitude toward anyone that did not successfully serve his ambitions.

The Angolan venture was more sophisticated, but by then Guevara had long met his end in Bolivia in yet another revolutionary misfire. There is little doubt according to this account that without Cuba's timely intervention in November 1975, the MLPA stood no chance against its Angolan rivals. Or for that matter, the South Africans who came close to seizing Luanda, the capital, thus ending a war that continues to this day, more than a quarter-century later.

South Africa, that is, white-run South Africa, comes in for a predictable beating for supporting the anti-MLPA forces, although goodness knows it could be argued that Pretoria was defending itself in a very rough neighborhood. Nor is the author's depiction of Henry Kissinger's Angola policy as "amoral" quite right either. Amoral, after all, is a weasel word. Was it immoral or not? My view is it was poorly thought out although the secretary got good advice from professional diplomats like Nathaniel Davis, but didn't listen.

As for the Soviets, much less the Cubans or their African allies, there is hardly a word of condemnation. To be sure, Mr. Gleijeses admits the MPLA became corrupt and incompetent after a promising start. But even here he blames Washington for MPLA's descent into corruption and misrule, as if one became kleptocratic and incompetent after a forced dependency on the Soviet bloc. I don't think so.

Nevertheless, this will be as good an account of the whole episode as one will likely get. In the end Cuba accomplished little, the Soviet Union is no more, apartheid is dead, and Africa remains Africa. Goodbye to all that.


Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.


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