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Opinion: US can help solve Zimbabwe problem

Hillary Clinton should appoint a roving ambassador to concentrate on Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe leaves after attending the 20th World Economic Forum on Africa, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on May 6, 2010.(Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

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.