Yesterday, I wrote about John McCain's chief political advisor, Charlie Black, and his history of being a paid shill for some of the world's worst dictators. But I left one of his clients for a later post, because Jonas Savimbi truly is a special case.
Those of you who were too young to be paying attention during the 1980s might not remember Jonas Savimbi and his organization, UNITA. Briefly: there had been armed resistance to Portuguese rule for years, but when Angola became independent of Portugal in 1975, a full-bore civil war broke out. It lasted, with a few short breaks, from 1975 until Savimbi's death in 2002. It started as a scramble for power after independence, heightened by the Cold War. (Apparently, declassified documents show that we intervened before the USSR and Cuba. I didn't know that.) Savimbi, who started out as a Maoist and a Portuguese agent, became one of our guys (he was also heavily supported by the apartheid government of South Africa); his main rival, the actual government of Angola, was supported by the USSR and Cuba.
During the 1980s, this turned into a full-bore Cold War proxy fight. This did not have to happen. We could have let Angola be. Its government was dreadful, but Savimbi was no rose either; even if you think that we should intervene in other countries, when a country seems to have a choice between two awful options, there's no real point in choosing sides, and certainly no point in plunging a country into civil war to get your side to win. This would not have prevented civil war -- Savimbi was supported by South Africa, which had a policy of trying to bog down the states near its borders in civil wars -- but it would have meant not actively contributing to the destruction of a country for no good reason. Alternatively, we could have chosen to support Savimbi, who was even more dreadful, in a civil war.
We chose to support Savimbi, with predictable results:
"The tap that Kissinger had turned on, and Carter had turned off, was opened again in 1981, when Ronald Reagan approved a covert aid package for Unita. South African Special Forces were good at what they did. Unita’s performance was already much improved by comparison with its half-hearted exertions against the Portuguese. Even so, Washington’s financial and diplomatic backing was an immense boost. The country, which was now a Cold War cockpit, remained undefeatable, but it could be comprehensively ruined, and this is what happened. The figures for war-related deaths, and child deaths in particular, leapt dramatically in the 1980s. Towns and villages were deserted or shelled to extinction. The countryside was a living death. There were landmines and limbless people everywhere (there still are). Young men were press-ganged into the burgeoning rabble of the Angolan Army, where the discipline of the elite units could not hope to reach. Unita kidnapped and abducted its fighters or picked up the homeless, traumatised survivors of Government offensives. Some of them were so-called ‘child soldiers’ – ‘premature adults’ is a better description. Provincial capitals became slum havens for hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Savimbi’s struggle, subsumed though it was in a large-scale offensive driven by South Africa and paid for in the United States, had come home to Angola."
We did not have to make this choice. Angola's government was bad, but all-out civil war was much, much worse for the Angolan people. What Charlie Black was lobbying for, in the 1980s, was enough US assistance to allow Jonas Savimbi to mount that all-out civil war, and to destroy his country.
Charlie Black did a very good job of drumming up support for Savimbi:
"When Savimbi came to Washington last month to seek support for his guerrilla organization, UNITA, in its struggle against the Marxist regime in Angola, he hired Black, Manafort. What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed "Savimbi chic." Doors swung open all over town for the guerrilla leader, who was dapperly attired in a Nehru suit and ferried about in a stretch limousine. Dole had shown only general interest in Savimbi's cause until Black, the Senate majority leader's former aide, approached him on his client's behalf. Dole promptly introduced a congressional resolution backing UNITA's insurgency and sent a letter to the State Department urging that the U.S. supply it with heavy arms. The firm's fee for such services was reportedly $600,000."
"With most of his war supplies provided by the U.S., Savimbi was able to pay Black, Manafort some $5 million to lobby for U.S. aid, generate favorable U.S. media coverage and gin up political support in Washington. With Black, Manafort's help, Savimbi has made at least five well-publicized trips to Washington, visiting President Reagan at the Oval Office, dining with former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and meeting with then-Vice President George Bush in 1988. Bush called Savimbi a "true patriot" and warned that cutting off Savimbi's U.S. aid would be "an immoral sellout of a loyal friend.""
"He swept into Washington like a head of state, wearing a tailored Nehru suit and traveling around town in a silver stretch limo dubbed "Jonas' whale" by Washington wags. Seeking U.S. support for his 28,000-strong guerrilla army, he was formally received by Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and, finally, President Reagan. With the help of a high-powered public relations firm, he appeared on Public Television's MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour and ABC's Nightline and Good Morning America to plead his cause against Angola's Marxist regime and their Cuban and Soviet sponsors. At a national Conservative convention in Washington, he received a cheering, whistling ovation, and former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick urged the U.S. to provide him with "real helicopters, real ground-to-air missiles, real weapons."
It was quite a reception for a little-known African rebel leader who has been unable to achieve power in ten years of fighting."
"Mr Reagan welcomed Savimbi to the White House and talked of Unita winning "a victory that electrifies the world and brings great sympathy and assistance from other nations to those struggling for freedom"."
Thanks in part to Black's assistance, Savimbi became the toast of conservative Washington, and people said a lot of things about him that look absolutely ludicrous in retrospect. For instance:
"Jeane Kirkpatrick toasted him as "one of the few authentic heroes of our time." President Reagan described him as Angola's Abraham Lincoln."
"Chester Crocker, the longest serving US assistant secretary of state, and the Reagan administration's top official for Africa described him as "one of the most talented and charismatic of leaders in modern African history"."
I could go on, but why?
In point of fact, Savimbi was a thug.
"Mr. Savimbi personally beat to death a rival's wife and children. He also shelled civilians, sowed land mines and then bombed a Red Cross-run factory making artificial legs for victims of mines.
"We have to call him Africa's classical terrorist," said Makau Mutua, a professor of law and Africa specialist. "In the history of the continent, I think he's unique because of the degree of suffering he caused without showing any remorse.""
"Former supporters of Unita, the United States-backed Angolan guerrilla movement, have asserted that the group's leader, Jonas Savimbi, has ordered the torture and killing of high-ranking dissenters in his ranks over many years. (...)
Witnesses have told Amnesty International, the human rights organization, that Mr. Savimbi has had opponents accused of being "witches" and then burned in bonfires at public rallies. One entire family, including three children aged 7 to 15, is said to have been killed this way in Jamba, Mr. Savimbi's military headquarters in southern Angola, in September 1983."
"As for the Angolan rebels and their boss, Jonas Savimbi, Washington provided them with hundreds of millions in dollars and weapons in a 20-year civil war where no one bothered to count the hundreds of thousands of victims. Mr. Savimbi's brutality was legendary, but Washington considered slaughtering Marxists forgivable.
Now, it seems, he has been murdering some of his own freedom fighters. While some of the deceased were members of his own tribe, they had the misfortune to be of another clan. The children of one of these unfortunates were also killed, their heads smashed against a tree."
"By the end of the 1980s his proxy army, supplied and funded by the CIA and aided by numerous South African invasions, had sabotaged much of Angola. Swathes of the countryside were cut off from agriculture by minefields, mine victims and malnourished children swamped the hospitals and tens of thousands of children were also kidnapped by Unita troops and taken to Unita-controlled areas in the south around Savimbi's capital at Jamba.
Appalling rites, such as public burning of women said to be witches, characterised the reign of terror in which many of Savimbi's close associates were imprisoned or killed on his orders."
When I think of Abraham Lincoln, the unforgettable episode in which he killed an old ally's children by smashing their heads against a tree is always what leaps to mind, followed quickly by the famous Lincoln Witchcraft Trials And Burnings. And I think: yes, Jeane Kirkpatrick was right: a man who would do such noble deeds as these truly is an authentic hero of our times.
But we shouldn't forget his military strategy, which included not only the massive and indiscriminate use of landmines, but also this:
"Savimbi's military strategy (...) was to make Angola ungovernable. His forces systematically targeted civilians and cut the economic links between city and countryside. He also eliminated internal rivals he regarded as too open to peace."
"In order to instill terror in the population and to undermine confidence in the government, Savimbi ordered that food supplies be targeted, millions of land mines be laid in peasants’ fields, and transport lines be cut. As part of this destabilization effort, UNITA frequently attacked health clinics and schools, specifically terrorizing and killing medical workers and teachers. The UN estimated that Angola lost $30 billion in the war from 1980 to 1988, which was six times the country’s 1988 GDP. According to UNICEF, approximately 330,000 children died as direct and indirect results of the fighting during that period alone. Human Rights Watch reports that because of UNITA’s indiscriminate use of landmines, there were over 15,000 amputees in Angola in 1988, ranking it alongside Afghanistan and Cambodia."
Current estimates put the number of unexploded landmines in Angola at around six million, and the number of people injured by landmines at 80,000.
Want to know what Charlie Black thought about this?
"Black, Manafort doesn't seem troubled by allegations that Savimbi tortured and murdered his rivals within UNITA or his resumption of the civil war. While Kelly declined to respond to questions regarding the substance of the firm's contract with Savimbi, in a 1990 interview Black defended him, saying, "Now when you're in a war, trying to manage a war, when the enemy ... is no more than a couple of hours away from you at any given time, you might not run your territory according to New Hampshire town meeting rules.""
Eventually, we cut our ties to Savimbi. When the apartheid government in South Africa fell, removing his other source of funding, he turned to blood diamonds to finance his endless war. Early on, he had claimed to be a democrat, and some conservatives believed him. In 1992, when he lost the election he claimed to have wanted all these years, he just started fighting again. The war went on for ten more years, until his death. When word got out that he had been killed,
"Residents of Angola's dilapidated capital, Luanda, greeted it with jubilation. People honked their horns as they drove through the rutted streets while others danced and fired shots in the air."
They were cheering for the end of twenty seven years of war: a war that would have been far less lethal without American support. That was what Charlie Black was lobbying for: the support Savimbi needed to utterly destroy his country. Thanks to Black's skill as a lobbyist, and his apparent lack of a conscience, Savimbi got it.
This is John McCain's chief political advisor. Think about it.
And because I can't bear to end on this note, here's a picture of a girl standing outside the hall where Angola's Miss Landmine Survivor pagent will be held, looking at photos of the contestants. (The winner got a custom prosthetic limb, and some appliances.) Somehow, I found the idea of having such a contest, and the fact that it seems to have been carried off with dignity, a heartbreaking affirmation of peoples capacity to turn anything, truly anything, to good.