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Western envoys tough with Mugabe

Choice of US and British ambassadors shows Zimbabwe still a trouble spot.

U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee surveys American donated cholera kits at a UNICEF warehouse in Harare, Jan. 29, 2009. The U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, but remains very critical of President Robert Mugabe's government. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe is a bitter man.

When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson attempted to explain that human rights abuses in Zimbabwe were blocking the country’s access to international aid, Mugabe branded him an "idiot."

Mugabe, 85, could barely contain himself when the two met on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Libya in early July.

Mugabe had hoped that Carson, a former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, would help relieve the country's isolation from the West, as a reward for the creation of the power-sharing government forged with Mugabe's long-time foe, Morgan Tsvangirai. But when Carson attempted to suggest the need for Zimbabwe to improve its governance record, Mugabe flew into a rage and cut the meeting short.

He wouldn’t speak again to “an idiot of that nature,” Mugabe told Zimbabwe’s state media. “I was very angry with him, and he thinks he could dictate to us what to do …Who is he? I hope he was not speaking for [President Barack] Obama. I told him he was a great shame, being an African-American.”

Mugabe is having difficulty understanding why, given the very visible representation of black Americans in the Obama administration, there are no takers for his racial-solidarity mantras. He comforts himself with the thought that officials such as Carson and recently departed U.S. Ambassador James McGee are not representative of Obama’s thinking.

McGee, who made a robust defense of U.S. policy in his valedictory speech on July 4, made it clear where his sympathies lay.

“The rule of law and human rights are still under attack,” he said in defiance of a Zimbabwean Ministry of Foreign Affairs directive not to make a speech. “Innocent Zimbabweans continue to be arrested and prosecuted.”

McGee last year led a convoy of diplomatic vehicles into Mugabe’s heart of darkness — rural hospitals where evidence of beatings of opposition supporters by the president’s thugs was all too evident. McGee, a large man, pushed aside officials trying to block him.

He will be succeeded by Charles Ray, an African-American career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Cambodia and also as deputy assistant secretary of state for defense.

There has also been a changing of the guard at Harare's British Embassy, viewed by the regime as unforgivably hostile.

Previous British envoys have been castigated over the land issue, declining to take up what the government says is the former colonial power’s responsibility to compensate dispossessed white farmers. Outgoing British Ambassador Andrew Pocock in a recent statement made it clear that the lawlessness on the land was the product of Zimbabwe government policy.