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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