66. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter 1


  • The Soviet Union and Ethiopia: Implications for U.S.-Soviet Relations

I enclose with this memorandum the recommendations of Thursday’s SCC regarding the African Horn.2 In my judgment the recommendations do not go far enough and they are not responsive to the real problem.

In my judgment, that problem is the Soviet insistence on defining detente in a purely selective way, retaining for itself the right to use force in order to promote wider political objectives. I do not believe that anyone serious can accept the argument that the Soviet Union is in Ethiopia for the sake of protecting Ethiopia’s frontiers; it is there because it has a larger design in mind. To start thwarting that design, we have to increase the costs to the Soviet Union of its engagement in Ethiopia.

In the memorandum which follows, let me state as concisely as I can how I see the Soviet motives; how I interpret the possible implications [Page 178] of Soviet/Cuban success; and what in my judgment should be our response.

1. Soviet Motives. There are two possible interpretations:

(1) Soviet leadership is divided. As a consequence, each bureaucracy does “its own thing.” The diplomats and others are pursuing SALT negotiations; the secret police is cracking down on dissidents; and the military-ideological sector exploits any available opportunity to promote Soviet influence. I do not find this interpretation persuasive because a decision of this magnitude, involving such major possible consequences, is not likely to be undertaken simply on the basis of a condition-reflex.

(2) The second interpretation is that the Soviet Union is pursuing deliberately a policy on which it embarked some fifteen years ago: to structure a relationship of stability with the United States in those areas that are congenial or convenient to the USSR, while pursuing assertively every opportunity for the promotion of Soviet influence. In promoting that influence the Soviets are becoming bolder. There is thus a striking contrast between the Angolan operation—conducted entirely through proxies—and the Ethiopian affair—in which the proxies still carry the major burden but the Soviet presence is more self-evident (see the attached intercept).3

What is even more disturbing is that the Soviets apparently have concluded that they can run such risks and get away with them. Brezhnev has simply brushed aside your earlier and quite frank expression of concern (see attached excerpts).4 He apparently expects us to posture, to make noises, and then to do nothing.

I believe it is unwise, potentially very dangerous, to reinforce them in this conclusion. This brings me logically to the discussion of the likely consequences of the foregoing.

2. Implications. Three different sets of implications should be considered.

(1) Regional. Soviet success in Ethiopia, even if limited to the defeat of the Somalis but not involving the penetration of Somalia as such, will have a significant demonstration effect elsewhere in Africa. It will encourage radical African states to act more assertively; it will also free the Cubans, perhaps even with more overt Soviet support, to become engaged in the struggle against Rhodesia.

Our position in the Somalian-Ethiopian conflict is ambivalent enough, because of Somali aggressiveness. Our position regarding Rho[Page 179]desia would be even more difficult because any opposition to Soviet/Cuban involvement will put us, de facto, on the side of apartheid.

(2) International. I fear that the impact on Saudi Arabia and Iran will be significant. It will not be felt immediately but it will contribute to the gradual “finlandization” of their outlook. No one in the region will fail to notice that the Soviet Union acted assertively, energetically, and had its own way. This will have a significant effect on Soviet neighbors; I do not think anyone here appreciates the degree to which the neighbors of the Soviet Union are fearful of the Soviet Union and see themselves as entirely dependent on American resolution.

I also do not believe that it is beating the drums of alarm to suggest that in the longer run there will be a ripple-effect in Europe as well.

(3) Domestic. It is only a question of time before the right wing begins to argue that the above demonstrates our incompetence as well as weakness. This will have a negative impact politically, and it will also complicate any attempt at a reasonable negotiation with the Soviet Union on matters of mutual importance, such as SALT. Whether we like it or not, there is thus a linkage. To pretend that it does not exist is simply to evade reality; moreover, the Soviets do want SALT and in some respects they may need it even more than we. We can already see from their sensitive reactions to any suggestion of linkage that they are concerned about this aspect. However, the important point domestically is that it will strengthen the right wing, and make the conduct of a reasonable and flexible foreign policy more difficult.

3. Our Response. Our response should be comprehensive and should fall into several categories.

(1) Strategy for Political Settlement. I believe this one has advanced the furthest and we do have a good four-point approach:

A. Somali withdrawal;

B. Some African presence in the Ogaden to prevent retribution as the Ethiopians return;

C. Soviet-Cuban withdrawal;

D. No further arming of Somalia.

The above is likely to be appealing to some African countries and we already have obtained the support of Kenya. We are now working on Nigeria. The above will require, however, considerable pressure on the Somalis to withdraw and greater assurance to the Somalis that, if they withdraw, they will not become vulnerable. (This is where American assurances and even physical presence become pertinent, as per #5 below).

We are now in the process of developing more specific proposals regarding the modalities of Somali withdrawal, regarding a ceasefire arrangement during such withdrawal, and post-withdrawal provisions.

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(2) Measures to Convey to the Soviet Union U.S. Concern. We have been quite weak in this regard and so far essentially passive. I think we should consider suspending a number of bilateral programs, starting with space. Frank Press has identified transportation and housing as areas in which either not much is happening or as areas in which the Soviets are the greater beneficiaries.

We should also continue to reiterate the point that we are not imposing linkages but the Soviets are creating them, including SALT. The Soviets have already shown sensitivity to this argument, and we should not back down.

However, the area of greatest Soviet sensitivity is China. We have neglected this dimension entirely. Developing more cooperation with the Chinese in science and technology will be a useful opener (and we should encourage—not discourage—West European arms sales to China). We also need to develop deliberately political consultations and perhaps even cooperation. The Chinese are worried about the Middle East and the African Horn, and they could even help us more directly (for example, they do have a direct relationship with Mugabe). In any case, the Soviets are willing to operate on several levels in their dealings with us; we should not be unduly sensitive to Soviet concerns and similarly operate on several levels towards them.

In addition, I think it would be useful to engage in direct high-level talks with the Soviet Union in which your emissaries would talk both constructively and toughly about their African adventures and their implications for SALT, etc. If the Soviets do not conclude that we are prepared to stand up to them, you can only anticipate worsening difficulties in the years ahead.

(3) Measures to Convey U.S. Concern to Cuba. I have proposed at the SCC more direct assistance to Savimbi in Angola. Cy has asked for more systematic examination of the specific proposals, and we will be taking this issue up again in the next SCC meeting. I believe we ought to try to enhance the cost to the Cubans of their involvement anywhere in Africa.

In addition, I am developing now proposals designed to put greater pressure on Cuba in the various non-aligned bodies with which Cuba is associated. Non-aligned countries ought to be sensitized to the fact that Cuba fights Soviet wars of intervention.

In addition, some of our trilateral friends are lending money to Cuba. Given Cuba’s role, I feel we ought to approach them and ask them to desist from what is tantamount to economic aid to Cuba.

(4) Relations with Ethiopia. Here I believe we are now on the right course. We will try to maintain a relationship with Mengistu, warn him whenever possible of the dangers of his becoming excessively [Page 181] dependent on the Soviets, and we should in addition take advantage of such neutrals as Tito and Desai to encourage Mengistu to terminate, as soon as possible, his dependence on the Soviets and Cubans.

(5) Military Posture. We have provided assurances to concerned countries that we will not permit the Soviets to interfere with their aid to Somalia. However, do we have the capability to deliver on this promise? I doubt it.

Moreover, if Somalia is to withdraw, it has to have a higher sense of assurance that such a withdrawal will not be followed either by invasion or by some internal disruption. Our military presence in the area would provide such assurance. Such military presence is also preferable to further arms supplies to Somalia, because these frighten our friends, the Kenyans. In fact, a proximate U.S. naval presence, especially an aircraft carrier, would have a pacifying effect on the Kenyans, provide reassurance to the Somalians, and some deterrent to the Soviets and the Cubans in Ethiopia. If they do not cross the frontier, we could later assert that it was thanks to our presence and resolution. We should move the carrier into place and announce that it is there to guarantee that the war does not spread after the Somali withdrawal.

A final point: The Soviets must be made to realize that detente, to be enduring, has to be both comprehensive and reciprocal. If the Soviets are allowed to feel that they can use military force in one part of the world—and yet maintain cooperative relations in other areas—then they have no incentive to exercise self-restraint. The conclusion to be drawn may be unpleasant and difficult, but I see no other alternative: in brief, our limited actions in regard to the specific conflict must be designed to convey our determination, while our broader response must be designed to make the Soviets weigh to a greater extent the consequences of their assertiveness for detente as a whole.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files 1977–1981, Box 184, SCC 061 Horn of Africa, 3/02/78. Top Secret; Sensitive. Carter initialed the memorandum and wrote, “I’m concerned, but we mustn’t overreact.”
  2. Not attached, but see Document 65.
  3. Not attached and not found.
  4. Not attached. For Brezhnev’s letter to Carter, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 84.