86. Memorandum From Paul B. Henze of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Arms for Somalia, Strategy in the Horn and Elsewhere in Africa; a Role for the Saudis and Iranians

I was disappointed to see a story on the front page of the Post this morning to the effect that we are giving arms to Somalia.2 It was apparently inspired by State. If we stick to the principles the President enunciated in March,3 we cannot give arms to Somalia in face of hard and mounting evidence that Siad is increasing support for Ogaden guerrillas and willfully deceiving us. A clique in State and the Pentagon who are opposed to practically everything else you stand for persists in trying to demonstrate a dubious toughness and concern about Soviet actions in Africa by trying to justify shipping arms to Siad. There would be a case for a very modest arms relationship with a genuinely peaceful Somalia. Siad is objectively serving Soviet purposes by fanning tension in the Horn and providing a justification for continued Cuban presence to help defend the Ogaden against Somali incursions. Guerrilla activity in the Ogaden is again approaching the level of intensity that prevailed last year at this time. This could lead in the next few weeks to retaliatory strikes by the Ethiopians/Cubans against Somalia itself. Mengistu could see certain advantages in doing this.

In opposing what the Soviets are doing in Africa we have to be careful not to take under our wing everyone who happens to have got into the position of opposition to Africans whom the Soviets are supporting. Siad is fundamentally more responsible than anyone else for the massive Soviet/Cuban presence in the Horn today. Supporting him is not going to further the process of defeating the Soviets and Cubans in Ethiopia. Nor is supporting the Eritreans going to do Soviet and Cuban interests in Ethiopia much harm either. Not that we have done either of these things—but naive arguments for doing so are [Page 241] again being advanced with increasing frequency. And some of our Middle Eastern friends, such as the Saudis and the Iranians, seem to be inclined to think that increased support for the Eritreans and for Somali guerrilla operations harms the Soviets and undermines Mengistu. Ultimately, it does not really have this effect. It only compounds the confusion and complicates pursuit of our policy objectives in the region and in Africa and the Middle East as a whole.

Our ultimate aim in the Horn should be to get the Soviets out of Ethiopia, reestablish our own position there, and, meanwhile, maintain a strong position in the two other key countries in the region, Sudan and Kenya. Somalia is of only incidental importance. Unattractive as Mengistu is, we have to make do with him for the time being. His internal position is strengthened by the Somali guerrilla threat and, to some degree as well, by the Eritrean stalemate. Persistance of both threats forces him into greater reliance on the Soviets and Cubans even though tensions are developing between them and the Ethiopians over Eritrea. Easing of the pressure on Ethiopia, on both the Somali and Eritrean fronts, would lessen Ethiopian dependence on the Soviets and Cubans, permit freer development of tensions between the Ethiopians and their Communist friends, and encourage internal opposition to Mengistu—which is likely to become increasingly third-force or pro-Western as frustration over the Soviet/Cuban connection causes intelligent Ethiopians to realize that the country’s problems cannot be settled within the framework of a Soviet-Cuban alliance. The Kenyans, and eventually the Sudanese, can be helpful in encouraging the kind of political evolution in Ethiopia that is in our long-term interest. Somalia has no role to play in this.

The Saudis and the Iranians would be using their resources to much better effect if they invested them in helping people such as the Zaireans, Savimbi, and Kaunda rather than pouring them down the Eritrean and Somali ratholes. They will do much more to frustrate Soviet and Cuban designs in Africa by helping build up countries and leaders who want to orient themselves genuinely toward the West than by supporting Marxists such as Siad and the EPLF. The notion that Saudi/Iranian support for Somalia and the Eritreans serves as a useful substitute for the support we might (but legally cannot) give to complicate the Soviets’ and Cubans’ problem in Ethiopia becomes more and more dubious as one considers its real political effect and its long-term implications. It leads nowhere.

If my argumentation seems arcane and complex, remember that Africa occupies a position in great-power rivalries today similar to that which Eastern Europe and the Balkans had during the era 1870–1940. Real, often intractible local issues underlay the cross-currents generated by outside political and ideological competition. The powers that lost [Page 242] most in Eastern Europe were those who became too entangled in pursuit of short-term tactical gains and who failed to avoid the traps and snares of dogmatic nationalism and self-seeking local politicians. The Russians eventually picked up all the pieces.

To counter the Russians and the Cubans effectively in Africa, we need to operate in a framework of political principles that will stand the test of time and a strategic concept that can be defended in terms of our own basic national interests.

If we write off Ethiopia as lost to the Soviets and then entangle ourselves and our allies in petty efforts to support anti-Ethiopian forces under the illusion that we are making things more difficult for the Soviets in Ethiopia, we are not serving our purposes well. We will end up keeping the area so destabilized that we will lose out in Sudan and Kenya, too. Rather than being swept along by naive and limited Saudi and Iranian perceptions of where their interests lie, we should take the lead, take advantage of their concerns to draw them into a grander plan for building resistance to Soviet/Cuban encroachments in Africa (and in the Middle East, the soft underbelly of Asia, as well) and help them apply their resources to endeavors that have a positive purpose and a real chance of success, e.g.:

• Get Saudi-Iranian financial backing for Zaire, as well as support for military strengthening of this country.

• Get Saudi-Iranian backing for a pan-African defense force.

• Draw the Saudis and Iranians into more energetic support of Sudan and support of Kenya by convincing them that this will be a much better investment of their resources than support of Somali-backed Ogaden insurgency and the Eritrean rebellion.

• Persuade the Saudis and the Iranians to invest a bit in Zambia, to ease its financial problems.

• Use the Saudis and Iranians as a substitute for the help we seem to be unable to provide ourselves for Savimbi.

• Stop indulging Siad and pretending that we are going to do an arms deal with him. Instead suggest to the Saudis and the Iranians (and anyone else who could help them) that they encourage his replacement by real pro-Western leaders who will devote their energies to developing Somalia’s own resources and forget about guerrillas. (The notion that change in Somalia must be back to a pro-Soviet regime is fallacious; Siad, the most pro-Soviet element in Somalia, has tried to go back and they won’t have him.)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 69, Somalia: 1/77–6/78. Secret. Sent for information. Brzezinski wrote in the upper right corner, “You make a strong case—we don’t intend to move fast on Somalia. ZB.”
  2. A reference to the article by Don Oberdorfer, “U.S. Revives Plan to Sell Defensive Arms to Somalia,” Washington Post , June 2, 1978, p. A1.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 73.