LAST week's decision of the US House of Representatives to reject a proposed ban on covert US aid to rebels fighting Angola's Marxist government appears to put the United States on the right side: against communism and for ``freedom fighters.'' But at a deeper level the action is troubling in several major respects:
It is likely to prolong the 11-year-old war, which has already taken a heavy toll on Angola's economy, and reduce the prospects for a negotiated settlement. The Luanda government, backed by the Soviets and an estimated 30,000 Cuban troops, will be less eager to part with Cuban troops and more interested in getting increased aid from its allies.
It keeps Congress from publicly debating a significant shift in US foreign policy. For most of the last decade a ban on covert US aid to Angolan rebels had been in effect. Until the ban was lifted just last year, Washington, which had been encouraging US businesses to invest in Angola, was actively working with the Luanda government on a Cuban troop withdrawal settlement. South Africa has made removal of Cuban troops a prerequisite for its departure from nearby Namibia. But Luanda has balked at setting a timetable so long as Pretoria, often using its bases inside Namibia, continues to conduct joint operations and invasions with the rebels against Angola.
The US decision to allow continuation of covert aid, which amounted to about $15 million over the last year, puts the US in a de facto partnership with South Africa. Pretoria has long been the logistical anchor for the rebel forces. Some neighboring black governments question why the US, which condemns Pretoria's apartheid policies, supports South Africa's aggressive effort to destabilize what appears to them a legitimate government in Luanda and avoid a solution on Namibia.
The recent US action also puts the US squarely behind Jonas Savimbi, of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). He has charmed Washington legislators with his brilliance and charisma, but his changeable politics remains an enigma. While currently pro-capitalist, he has been termed a Marxist, Maoist, and Socialist.
Some discrimination must be applied to the Reagan doctrine of support for anti-communist insurgencies. Getting South Africa out of Namibia -- as Pretoria agreed to in 1978 -- must remain a key goal. Angola broke off the US-mediated talks in 1984 over the question of a timetable for Cuban troop withdrawal. The US insists it is ready to resume the talks.
While the US has every right not to like the Luanda government, it should accord it long-overdue diplomatic recognition. Every major government except Pretoria and Washington now recognizes Luanda. US charges about Nicaragua's tendency to export revolution have never even been raised in Angola's case. And the US, which has offshore oil installations in Angola, buys more than half of that country's oil exports. Luanda has hired moderate Republican Elliot Richardson, former US attorney general, for help on how to renew diplomatic contacts with the US.
Mr. Richardson's task fits in with the need for a more realistic assessment of the diplomatic and other costs of covert aid.