"A monumental rebuff to Africa. A sad moment in the history of the United Nations and of African-Western relations." This is how African delegates, conservatives as well as moderates and radicals, consider the triple veto passed in the Security Council last week by the United States, Britain, and France to block the imposition of an oil and arms embargo against South Africa.
All the other members of the council, including Spain, Japan, Ireland, China, Tunisia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Panama, voted in favor of sanctions.
France and Britain closed ranks with their American ally in casting vetoes. But a number of diplomats here are concerned that what was perceived as American insensitivity toward both black Africa and the United Nations eventually may lead to a new split between the US and its European friends.
Black African diplomats say they were shocked and saddened by what they saw as a display of "US intransigence." Even Washington's closest friends confess privately to being dismayed. They felt their own images were tarnished in African eyes and their own interests in Africa were sacrificed for little purpose.
Indeed, Western diplomats assert that this confrontation was entirely avoidable. They contend it was brought about largely by the "diplomatic lack of skills" of the new team representing the US at the United Nations.
These Western diplomats say that a form of words could have been worked out to satisfy the Africans, who were described as being prepared to be flexible. These sources say that the Africans had waited for two weeks for the five Western nations that had drafted the UN plan for Namibian independence -- the US , Britain, France, Canada, and West Germany -- to reaffirm clearly their commitment to their own plan embodied in Security Council Resolution 435.
Well-informed diplomatic sources say that the non-American members of the five, particularly those seated at the council (Britain and France), saw no difficulty with restating their adherence to Resolution 435. According to senior American "old Namibia hands," there existed in the UN vocabulary enough words to satisfy the Africans, who could then once again postpone the call for sanctions.
But, says one Western diplomat, "Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick sat in silence for three hours while ambassadors from both sides were seeking a compromise formula, as if to signal her lack of concern regarding the whole issue."
A new plan, unofficially submitted to Assistant-Secretary of State-designate Chester Crocker in London April 23 by the four American partners in the Namibia "contact group," apparently did not win favor with the new administration.
This plan goes a long way toward meeting South African fears, even though it keeps the process leading to the independence of mineral-rich Namibia within the UN framework. The plan essentially seeks to complement Resolution 435 by adding to it several UN Charter principles to be included in Namibia's constitution in order to protect the rights of the white minority. It also seeks to give Namibia a neutral status, by way of an international treaty, so as to guarantee that it would not become hostile to any of its neighbors, including South Africa.
The original UN plan for the independence of Namibia, prepared by the five Western nations and accepted in principle by South Africa last fall, calls for a cease-fire to be followed by UN-supervised, free elections and finally by independence. South Africa fears that the South-West Africa People's Organization, which it considers to be "Marxist controlled," would come to power under this plan.
At the Geneva conference in January the five Western nations privately told South Africa they would seek ways by which to protect not only the rights of Namibia's white minority but also South Africa's economic interests there.
But both South Africa and Namibia's South African-backed "Turnhalle" parties rejected these advances. Instead Dirk Mudge, the leader of the Turnhalle group, told a high UN official: "We are for free elections -- if we know we shall win them."
After the efforts by the Western "contact group" were thus blocked by South Africa, the Reagan administration sent out signals that it intended to weaken the US commitment to the UN plan. This and other African problems, it made clear, would be viewed in the context of US-Soviet rivalry.
Referring to southern Africa, American officials told high European officials in Washington in February and March, "We will take care of the Angolans." Indeed , the administration requested that Congress lift the Clark amendment, which prohibits the United States from assisting Jonas Savimbi's guerrillas, who are fighting against the Cuban-supported Angolan government.
Even while the Namibian question was before the Security Council last week, Chester Crocker stated in Washington that "for peace to come in Angola, the Savimbi people will have to have a cut of the pie."
By hinting at the same time that Cuban troops would have to leave Angola before consideration could be given to the independence of Namibia, he seemed to indicate that the Reagan administration was preparing to disengage from the Western group's three-year joint mediation effort.
Under these new circumstances, some Cabinet-level Western officials are wondering whether it is still useful for their countries to continue to side publicly with the US. Up to now they had chosen not to break ranks with the Reagan administration because they felt it ought to be given time to get acquainted with a very complex problem and to formulate a realistic policy.
"However, if the US is going to simply side with South Africa and dismiss the United Nations altogether, the Europeans may have to look after their own interests in Africa as they are doing in the Middle East," comments one West European diplomat.
The five Western nations did reach agreement on strategy toward Namibia in Rome May 3 during preparations for the NATO foreign ministers' meeting. They promised new proposals for the territory's future. But this agreement is seen here as likely to contain little more than a papering over of existing differences between the US and its allies.
Meanwhile, there is still hope among moderate Africans that the Reagan administration will see the light and be gently persuaded by its allies, as well as by such friendly governments as Nigeria's and Kenya's, to turn back from the brink and to avoid antagonizing the black continent.