A mixed verdict today in the Ghailani trial from the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania led me to pull of the shelf Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser 1977-1981. These were my high school years and I wrote a paper contrasting the views in Brzezinski’s book and Jimmy Carter’s memoir Keeping Faith as an undergrad. Kenya was handed off from Kenyatta to Moi during this time. My children are roughly the age I was then.
So what did Brzezinski have to say, writing in 1983, about U.S. policy in Kenya and Somalia and the Horn of Africa generally? For him it was all about strategic confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, globally and in regard to the Middle East, most importantly Saudi Arabia. “Linkage” was between the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty negotiations.
The more immediate source of friction between Vance and me was the Soviet-sponsored deployment of the Cuban military in the African Horn. In the summer of 1977, the long-standing territorial disputes in the Horn of Africa were complicated by the dramatic switch in allegiances of the Ethiopians and Somalis. The increasingly extreme leftist government of Ethiopia broke with the West, while the Somalis, who had been aided by Moscow, turned to the United States. The unsettled situation was of serious concern to Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and us, because we all had evidence that the Soviets were providing increased aid and using Cuban forces in the already tense border war. Of course, our ability to assist the Somalis was not helped by the fact that they were the nominal aggressors in the Ogaden, having crossed over an established border into territory they claimed belonged to them.
However, in my view the situation between the Ethiopians and the Somalis was more than a border conflict. Coupled with the expansion of Soviet influence and military presence to South Yemen, it posed a potentially grave threat to our position in the Middle East, notably in the Arabian peninsula. It represented a serious setback in our attempts to develop with the Soviets some rules of the game in dealing with turbulence in the Third World. The Soviets had earlier succeeded in sustaining, through the Cubans, their preferred solution in Angola, and they now seemed embarked on a repetition in a region in close proximity to our most sensitive interests.
I was strengthened in my view by the repeated, like-minded expressions of concern by both Giscard and Sadat, leaders with a refined strategic perspective. Both warned Carter on several occasions not to be passive or to underestimate the gravity of an entrenched Soviet military presence so close to weak, vulnerable, yet vitally needed Saudi Arabia. Sadat let it be known that he was afraid the Soviets were seeking to embarrass him specifically by seizing control of territory crucial to Egyptian interests. We had a report from the Shah, who had traveled to Aswan and to Riyadh, that both the Egyptians and the Saudis were increasingly concerned by the increased Soviet activity. In fact, the Shah reported that the Saudis were “petrified” by the prospect of a Soviet presence across the Red Sea. The Sudanese had also expressed to Carter their worries about Soviet activity and U.S. lack of activity. In a personal message the Sudanese President wrote: “We believe that the Soviet Union is pursuing a sinister grand strategy in Africa leading to some definite goals. We are truly alarmed . . .
Yet in spite of such expressions of concern, throughout the late fall of 1977 and much of 1978 I was very much alone in the U.S. government in advocating a stronger response: Vance insisted that this issue was purely a local one, while Brown [Sec. of Defense] was skeptical of the feasibility of any U.S. countermoves. But by the late summer of 1977, intelligence sources provided mounting evidence of growing Soviet-sponsored involvement. As a result, I promoted . . . a recommendation to the President, which he approved, to accelerate our efforts to provide support to the Sudan, to take steps to accelerate our efforts to reassure and strengthen Kenya, and to explore means of getting as many African leaders as possible to react adversely to the Soviet-sponsored Cuban military presence.
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With Carter’s approval, I also started briefing the press on the growing Soviet-Cuban military presence, and by mid-November 1977 articles started appearing, registering the growing escalation of the Communist military efforts. For example, the New York Times produced a November 17 front-page report, including a map, detailing the growing Soviet-sponsored Cuban military activity on the African continent. . . .
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. . . “You could almost sense the anxiety in the room when I mentioned the possibility of more direct action to make it impossible for the Soviet and Cubans not only to transform Ethiopia into a Soviet associate but also perhaps to wage more effective warfare against Somalia. yet if Ethiopia and South Yemen become Soviet associates, not only will access to Suez be threatened, and this involves the oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there will be a serious and direct political threat to Saudi Arabia. This is something we simply cannot ignore, however uncomfortable the thought may be.”
It was roughly at this time that Sadat raised with us the possibility of deploying Egyptian forces in Somalia, and we agreed to that initiative. We also informed Giscard of the Egyptian plan, but Sadat did not follow through. . . .
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Encouraged by the President’s strong stand, I started pressing again . . . for a more direct reaction. I was concerned not only about the foreign implications of perceived U.S. passivity in this strategic area, but also about the effect it would have on domestic politics and what that would mean for SALT. . . . My view was the the deployment of an American aircraft carrier task force near Ethiopia would send a strong message to the Soviets and would provide more tangible backing for our strong words. . . .
Harold Brown and Cy Vance, however, opposed that approach. Vance particularly was against any deployment of a carrier task force in the area of the Horn. . . . I could sense that personal tension was entering into our relationship. Vance believed that we should emphasize a political settlement that would make it easier for the Somalis to withdraw, but that we should keep our forces out, even if the Ethiopians crossed over the frontier into Somalia. He argued that “we are getting sucked in. The Somalis brought this on themselves. They are no great friends of ours, and they are reaping the fruits of their actions. For us to put our presitige on the line and to take military steps is a risk we should not take.” In his opinion, the United States should not put an aircraft carrier in the area unless we were prepared to use it. Vance was supported in his arguments by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Richard Moose . . .
I continued to make my point that more was at stake than a disputed piece of desert. To a great extent our credibility was under scrutiny by new, relatively skeptical allies in a region strategically important to us . . . .
Brown played a particularly cautious role. He agreed with my analysis of the consequences in the short run but with Vance about the long-run outcome. He argued that sending a special task force without a specific purpose would likely have negative consequences outweighing the advantages. He pointed out further that if Somalia were invaded and Siad Barre overthrown, it would be viewed as a failure of the U.S. task force to do its job, and that failure would impair the credibility of such task forces in future crises elsewhere–in short, a U.S. bluff would have been called. As he put it in the NSC meeting of February 23, “. . . if we know the situation will come out all right in Somalia . . . then we might deploy the carrier and take credit for success in preventing an invasion. On the other hand, if we do not know how the situation will come out, or we do not intend to use the aircraft carrier in Somalia, then we should not put it in.” . . . .
In the end, I did not carry the day . . . .
The debate over Soviet assertiveness in the African Horn in fact raised three key issues: Were we dealing with a local or a strategic question? How should we respond? Was there any linkage to SALT? For Vance, the African matter was largely a local issue, and he was strongly backed by the State Department; I argued that the newly discovered Soviet-Cuban passion for the integrity of frontiers could hardly be analyzed in such narrow terms. Moreover, even if one allowed what seemed to me to be a preposterous notion, namely that the Soviets were acting out of some sort of strange territorial legalism, their presence so close to Saudi Arabia was bound to have strategic consequences, whatever the Soviet intent may have been.
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. . . I gave the President my views on where our relations stood with the Soviets approximately one year after we took office. In the first report, entitled “Strategic Deterioration,” I noted that there were serious dangers on the horizon . . . “In effect, first through a proxy (as in Angola) and now more directly (as in Ethiopia), the Soviet Union will be demonstrating that containment has now been fully breached.” . . . .
Two years later, in March 1980, as we were reacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I wrote in my journal: “I have been reflecting on when did things begin genuinely to go wrong in the U.S.-Soviet relationship. My view is that it was on the day sometime in . . . . 1978 when at the SCC meeting I advocated that we send a carrier task force in reaction to the Soviet deployment of the Cubans in Ethiopia. At that meeting not only was I opposed by Vance, but Harold Brown asked why, for what reason, without taking into account that this is a question that should perplex the Soviets rather than us. The President backed the other rather than me, we did not react. Subsequently, as the Soviets became more emboldened, we overreacted, particularly in the Cuban Soviet brigade fiasco of last fall. That derailed SALT, the momentum of SALT was lost, and the final nail in the coffin was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In brief, underreaction then bred overreaction.” That is why I have used occasionally the phrase “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.”
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I brought up the matter formally at the NSC meeting [December 4, 1979] by recommending specifically that the United States now approach Oman, Somalia and Kenya with a proposed contingency arrangement for granting us naval and air basing facilities. This, I argued, was necessary to inject American power into a region that had become “an arc of crisis,” and in which the Soviets were both militarily and politically on the offensive. With Vance and Brown not taking a strong position either way, but with General Jones and Admiral Turner backing me strongly, the President instructed the Defense and State Departments to develop joint initiatives to the countries concerned. Later, a cooperative agreement was also concluded with Egypt . . . The United States during 1980 acquired access to Masirah Island, located very close to the Persian Gulf, with supporting bases further back in Berbera, Mombasa, and Ras Banas in southeastern Egypt.