55. Memorandum From Thomas P. Thornton of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski), the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron) and Paul B. Henze and Henry Richardson of the National Security Council Staff1


  • The Horn

Attached are some thoughts that I have put together in the process of trying to think constructively about the Horn. I hope you find them of some use.

I have discussed this general approach with my North-South colleagues and some others. I have profited from the discussion but would not suggest that they fully support what I have written.


Paper Prepared by Thomas P. Thornton of the National Security Council Staff2


1. Personally, I am quite willing to let events take their course as regards the Soviet role in the region. I think they will gain little from their efforts in the short run and probably be heavy losers in the not distant future (i.e., less than five years). As long as Mengistu is not desperate, he is not going to be a Soviet toady. Also, I dispute the idea that the Horn is of notable strategic value unless you are going to fight World War II over again. I do not believe that any likely US policy course will result in the Finlandization of Saudi Arabia, and think that we have quite a bit to gain internationally by standing above the battle.

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2. These views may not be universally held (although they find substantial support among those of us involved in North-South matters). Whether or not they are accepted may not matter all that much; the constraints imposed by our capabilities to act decisively may lead us to much the same courses of action as would a relaxed attitude.

3. We do not have domestic support for a dramatic involvement in the Horn. Most of those who would berate us for our weakness vis-a-vis the Soviets will quickly get under the table if the question of personnel or large-scale military assistance arises. The worst thing that can happen to this administration, abroad and at home, is to be seen as ineffective—i.e., talking big and not being able to follow up.

4. We seem to have two principal goals:

—Increase the cost the Soviets and Cubans will have to pay to enhance their position, and keep them from enhancing it to the extent possible.

—Prevent a Somali collapse, either through invasion or subversion. Note that a Somali victory is not among our interests.

5. We need to define a rhetorical and political position that will help us achieve these ends with minimum involvement on our part. We should stake out the high ground clearly by saying:

—We do not and have never supported Somali territorial aspirations.

—We stand by the principle of inviolability of African borders—and this includes the Somalis’ own border.

—We urge great power restraint; preferably this means non-involvement. When there is involvement it must be proportionate. We reluctantly accept the fact of the Soviets helping the Ethiopians. We do not accept, however, the massive scale of the involvement which raises questions as to ultimate Soviet intentions.

—We should emphasize the role of regional responsibility; in the first instance the OAU mediation responsibility; in the second instance, the role of neighboring states to assist Somalia if it is attacked.

6. A prerequisite to any effective action along the above lines is the withdrawal of Somali forces from Ethiopia, or at least a general perception that withdrawal is about to be effected by one means or the other.


7. A major difficulty in pursuing our propaganda line will be to convey an adequate picture of Soviet involvement without creating unnecessary pressures here at home or among allies. The matter should be approached with calm and dignity—more sorrow than anger. The danger is not to us or to our interests but to Africa, to the states of the [Page 127] general region and to world stability. For domestic consumption we point out that the President is determined not to get us bogged down.

8. While we have an interest in raising the cost of involvement to the Soviets, this should not entail attempts to prolong the fighting in the hope of getting the Soviets enmired in a mini-Vietnam. The main cost of such a policy would be in terms of the lives of Ethiopians and Somalis, and there is no US interest at stake that would permit us to do that in good conscience.

9. In addressing the international audience, the cost to the Soviets can be raised by a vigorous propaganda campaign. For example, we should be getting pictures of Soviet ships ferrying troops to Ethiopia and flooding the European and Third World media with them. We would emphasize not the threat to the US but the disproportionate and dangerous nature of the Soviet response. There will be unhelpful playback at home, but this can be attenuated by the same themes. (We need not respond as forcefully to Soviet bad behavior if it is not a direct threat to us.)

10. Overall, our tactics should be aimed for maximum effect when our political position will be strongest—i.e., when the Somalis are out of Ethiopia, which is likely to be sooner rather than later.

11. We should be very receptive to the idea of going to the UN Security Council. Our hands are clean and the Soviets’ are not. Even the Somalis will look good once they have pulled back. (There is a certain similarity to the role of North Korea before and after it was driven back behind the 38th Parallel.) There is a threat to the peace and this is just the kind of thing that the Security Council should be discussing. Obviously it should look to the OAU as its instrument if the OAU could be effective. “Meddling” by the UNSC plus a Somali withdrawal might provide the context to galvanize the OAU.

12. If we are going to help the Somalis, it should be through third country transfers. Indeed, the current situation raises questions as to whether our self-imposed limitations on third country transfers make sense. There are certain things that we should help other people to do that we would not be willing to do ourselves. We should not unduly tie their (and our own) hands. Quite aside from the immediate situation, this is a policy that we should review.

13. Finally, we should design policies that will give Ethiopia a maximum amount of incentive and flexibility in the short and mid-term to shift away from the Soviets. Pressure is one aspect of this, but it must be accompanied by clear indications that we are not unalterably opposed to vital Ethiopian interests. In other words, we must not become totally identified with the Somali cause. (The Arabs were able to diversify only after it became clear to them that we were not committed to Israel 150 percent.)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files 1977–1981, Box 19, PD/NSC–32. Secret. Sent for information. Copies were sent to Armacost, Bartholomew, Erb, Hunter, Pastor, Sick, and Tuchman.
  2. Secret.