Article — From the August 2008 issue

The Wrecking Crew

How a gang of right-wing con men destroyed Washington and made a killing

( 3 of 7 )

Side by side with the Entrepreneur in those days stood another great conservative hero: the Freedom Fighter, a ragged warrior who had, according to myth, spontaneously taken up arms against communism in Third World countries around the globe. American conservatives came to love these freedom fighters intensely, and for a simple reason. These tough anticommunists in faraway lands validated the conservatives’ most cherished fantasies of the Sixties turned right-side up. The freedom fighters proved it: Reagan’s revolution was for real.

Traditional conservatives had generally regarded anticommunist guerrilla movements as necessary evils, doing important if ugly work. The transforming fire of Reaganism, however, turned all such cutthroats and mercenaries into patriots. It was our guys who were the heroic underdogs now, disrespected and ill-supplied, going up against the high-tech, organization-men monsters of the Soviet Union—and, of course, its liberal proxies here in the United States.

The peerless darling of the freedom-fighter fan club was Jonas Savimbi, the charismatic Angolan guerrilla leader whose every utterance seemed to strike young Eighties conservatives as a timeless profundity. Angola had been one of the very last countries in Africa to be freed from colonial domination, but, unlike seemingly every other “national liberator” in the preceding decades, Savimbi was not a communist. In Angola, the communists were the ones who grabbed power in the capital as soon as the Europeans left; Savimbi, who fought them with the backing of the apartheid government in South Africa, supposedly believed in free enterprise and balanced budgets.

Conservatives were smitten with this self-titled general who struggled for free markets in his remote land. They fell for Savimbi as romantically, and as guilelessly, as Sixties radicals once did for Che, Ho, and Huey. Savimbi was “one of the few authentic heroes of our time,” roared Jeane Kirkpatrick, queen of the neocons, when she introduced him at the 1986 Conservative Political Action Conference. Grover Norquist followed the great man around his camp in Angola, preparing magazine articles for Savimbi’s signature. Jack Abramoff made a movie about Savimbi, depicting him as a tougher, African version of Gan- dhi. Even Savimbi’s capital—the remote camp called “Jamba”—was described in conservative literature with elevated language such as “Savimbi’s Kingdom.”

In truth, Savimbi’s main achievement was to keep going, for nearly thirty years, a civil war that made Angola one of the worst places on earth—its population impoverished, its railroads and highways and dams in ruins, its countryside strewn with land mines by the millions, even its elephant herds wiped out, their tusks hacked off to raise funds for his army.

This was the man the rebel right chose for the starring role in one of the strangest spectacles in American political history, a media event designed to cement conservatism’s identification with revolution. The organizer was Jack Abramoff; the place was Jamba; the model, I am told, was Woodstock—only a right-wing version, with guerrillas instead of rock bands. Every kind of freedom fighter was there, joining hands in territory liberated by arms from a Soviet client regime. There were Nicaraguan Contras, some Afghan mujahedeen, an American tycoon—and they all got together at Savimbi’s hideout.

This “rumble in the jungle,” as skeptics called it, came to pass in June of 1985. Of course, bringing it off required considerable assistance from Savimbi’s South African patrons. Nobody else even knew how to find Jamba.

Since these freedom fighters had no actual issues to discuss—no trade agreements or mutual-defense plans or anything—they signed the Jamba Declaration, a bit of high-flown folderol written by Grover Norquist that aimed for solemnity but sounded more like the work of a fifth-grader who has been forced to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence and has got them all jumbled up somehow.

Jamba was meant as a celebration of freedom, a word revered by Americans generally and a term of enormous significance to conservatives in particular. Yet as freedom’s embodiment Abramoff had chosen a terrorist: Jonas Savimbi, the leader of an armed cult. To fill the main supporting role in this great freedom-fest, meanwhile, the organizers turned to apartheid South Africa, a place where only a small, correctly complexioned percentage of the population possessed even the most basic democratic rights.

is the author of four books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? and the forthcoming The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan Books), from which this essay is adapted.

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