Opinion: US can help solve Zimbabwe problem

BOSTON — Neither the forces of world order, the powers of Africa, nor the global spirit of democracy has managed to curb Robert G. Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe.

Indeed, the once prosperous country is an increasingly desperate place, with intensifying poverty, deteriorating life expectancies and health outcomes, 90 percent unemployment, renewed ruling party brutalities against hapless civilians and opponents, and no likelihood of any amelioration.

Moreover, the so-called unity government of Mugabe’s party and the opposition led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is wildly disunited. Unlike the compromise bilateral government in Kenya, Zimbabwe’s is entirely a fig leaf for continued unimpeded power by Mugabe and his henchmen.

South Africa, first under former president Thabo Mbeki and now under President Jacob Zuma, was supposed to encourage substantive change by mediating between Mugabe and Tsvangirai and between their respective parties. But that hope has long been demonstrated to be a chimera. Nothing is happening, and the corrupt followers of Mugabe are getting more corrupt on the sale of blood diamonds while the bulk of the country’s population either goes hungry or flees to South Africa.

Mugabe’s men even managed in June to subvert an international inquiry into the diamond business in eastern Zimbabwe and to persuade a South African investigator to permit, under the Kimberley Process, the licit sale of diamonds mined under shady auspices by Mugabe’s cronies.

Since the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (controlled by South Africa) are unwilling to label Mugabe a tyrant and unwilling to critique his failures of commission and omission, only non-Africans can possibly return Zimbabwe to democracy and to its people.

China is strongly supporting Mugabe, however, which makes U.N. condemnation and effective sanctions difficult. So are oil powers such as Libya. Mugabe is now backed by the very worst of the worst.

What can be done?

Although the U.S. is in no position, given Afghanistan and Iraq, to intervene unilaterally in Zimbabwe, even if there were any will to do so, Washington can still be a positive catalyst.

President Barack Obama has had Zimbabwe on his foreign policy radar, and for the right reasons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken forcibly about the Zimbabwe tragedy. She has asked President Zuma for his help and cooperation. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson, once ambassador to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, has also spoken clearly about Zimbabwe, even to Mugabe directly in 2009. At that time Mugabe famously called Carson “an idiot,” and walked out. But such jaw-boning has not yet brought about change or the hope of action.

Nevertheless, Secretary Clinton’s voice is strong and true, and widely influential in key capitals in Africa. She should urgently declare Washington’s desire to help to make the unity government in Zimbabwe work by meeting with Zuma and the heads of state and government of the SADC region.

She should appoint a strong roving ambassador to be her agent within southern Africa for as long as it takes to create an effective partnership government within Zimbabwe and to reduce Mugabe’s despotic grip. Her enunciated goal should be the end of violence and human rights abuses, the transfer of effective power to Prime Minister Tsvangirai, and a rapid diminution of Mugabe's presidential authoritarianism.

The appointment of a roving ambassador would demonstrate Washington’s commitment to the southern Africa and her desire to persuade South Africa and the other nations of the region that the U. S. is serious about achieving improvements to the regime in Zimbabwe.

A roving ambassador would provide the kind of close attention to the issue that Carson, with so many other African concerns, and the individual ambassadors in the region, cannot.

Washington holds carrots and sticks to support such an ambassadorial approach. If and when Zimbabwe is better governed, existing “smart” sanctions against Mugabe’s henchmen and their relatives can slowly be lifted. Additional incentives would include new funds with which to jump start the faltering Zimbabwean economy.

Washington can encourage SADC to ban official aircraft carrying Mugabe and his entourages from crossing neighboring airspace, thus ending his and his wife’s penchant for shopping trips to Dubai, Hong Kong (where they own expensive property), Kuala Lumpur, Singapore (where Zimbabwean diamonds are allegedly converted into property), Rome, Copenhagen, and so on.

With a little persuasion of South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique, Washington could confine Mugabe to Zimbabwe and deny him medical treatment in South Africa or beyond. A roving ambassador with Secretary Clinton’s stamp could make these cases, and demonstrate finally that the U. S. cares.