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Obama's Plans for Mugabe By: Philip Terzian
Weekly Standard | Tuesday, July 01, 2008


If inspirational claptrap is the stuff of diplomacy, then Barack Obama should flourish in the White House.

Consider his recent pronouncement on events in Zimbabwe. Conditions in the former British colony of Rhodesia could not be more horrific. After nearly 30 years of independence, presided over by the Marxist tyrant and psychotic Robert Mugabe, the country, once the "breadbasket of Africa," has reverted to something resembling an atavistic state. The economy is essentially dysfunctional, inflation has wiped out savings and capital, "food shortages" have given way to starvation, and the daily life of most Zimbabweans is a combination of grubbing for subsistence and avoiding the attention of Mugabe's armed thugs.

Foreign journalists who report on events are harassed, detained, and expelled from the country; Zimbabwean journalists are routinely murdered. Last week, when the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from Mugabe's rigged balloting for president--citing personal peril and violence against his followers--he sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare, the capital city.

At which point, Senator Obama threw down the gauntlet, making three salient points. First, "the United States and the international community must be united, clear and unequivocal," he declared. "The government of Zimbabwe is illegitimate and lacks any credibility." Second, he said, Zimbabwe's African neighbors "must do much more to help prevent the crisis in Zimbabwe from spiraling out of control." And finally, "the South African government and [the African National Congress] must recognize the need--and must call for--the kind of diplomatic action that is necessary to pressure the Zimbabwean government to stop its repressive behavior."

Obama's three declarations were followed by a call for "the United States to tighten our sanctions," leading, in due course, to "an enforceable, negotiated political transition .??.??. that would end repressive rule and enable genuine democracy to take root."

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's statement has the virtue of what we might call statesmanlike rhetoric, is reliant on a unified international community, and avoids any Bush-like calls to arms or threats of unilateral action against the government of Zimbabwe or its president.

But as with all diplomatic language, it is equally instructive to boil Obama's rhetoric down to its essentials. To begin with, any unequivocal statement--by the United States, the United Nations, Zimbabwe's African neighbors, or the Organization of African Unity--that Mugabe's government is "illegitimate" or "lacks credibility" is roughly comparable to declaring that the German chancellor (Angela Merkel) is a woman. Not only is there near-universal agreement that Mugabe's regime is illegitimate, and has been for years, it is comical to suggest that its defect is "credibility." President Mugabe's problem is not integrity or the value of his word; it is the fact that he is a (quite credible) tyrant and mass killer of his people.

And while no one would oppose encouraging Zimbabwe's African neighbors to "prevent the crisis .??.??. from spiraling out of control"--what, if anything, does that mean? Is Senator Obama persuaded that there is room for things to get worse in Zimbabwe, in which case the international community should monitor events for incipient signs of spiraling? Or does he fear the export of Mugabe's brand of misrule to Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa? This is the sort of earnest nonsense and terminological inexactitude that used to drive Winston Churchill to distraction.

Of greatest interest, however, is Obama's charge to the South Africans and the African National Congress. To be sure, this is of special concern since the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, has been notably reluctant to criticize Mugabe--indeed, even to acknowledge problems in Zimbabwe--while the ANC is, at best, divided on the issue. What Obama demands, however, is for the ANC and the Johannesburg government to "recognize the need .??.??. for the kind of diplomatic action that is necessary to pressure the Zimbabwean government to stop its repressive behavior."

It might be helpful, in this instance, to review the previous sentence. For, in trademark stentorian tones and calibrated syllables, Obama asks the South Africans to, please, consider the necessity of diplomatic action. Not to take diplomatic action, it should be emphasized, but to acknowledge the necessity of considering diplomatic action. Which suggestion, no doubt, President Mbeki will take under advisement.

What all this reveals, of course, is not that Robert Mugabe is monstrous, or that Barack Obama has mastered rhetorical sleight-of-hand, but that Zimbabwe languishes in catastrophic straits, that Mugabe is likely to strengthen his stranglehold, that thousands of Zimbabweans are destined to be killed--and that not much can be done about it. The United Nations is officially unhappy about circumstances in Zimbabwe, but Mugabe's allies in the General Assembly and the Security Council have effectively prevented any definitive statement of purpose. The Organization of African Unity is disinclined to break ranks against one of the last surviving anticolonial guerrillas, and the governments surrounding Zimbabwe are probably incapable of challenging Mugabe's armed forces.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said all the right things on the subject, but the United States cannot persuade the Africans to act against what they perceive to be their self-interest, and there is no prospect whatsoever of American--or European or any variety of multilateral-- intervention. Even America's senior Nobel Peace laureate, Jimmy Carter, has been uncharacteristically silent--and with good reason, since it was the Carter State Department, in 1978, that turned its back on the moderate Methodist bishop Abel Muzorewa, who had sought accommodation with Rhodesia's white settlers, in favor of the charismatic gunman Mugabe.

It is worth mentioning that no one--not Obama, no U.S. observer, or any interested European or African--has wondered if, say, some French or Belgian or British soldier of fortune might be willing for a small consideration to rid Zimbabwe of its oppressor. That, of course, would be morally unacceptable, while "tighten[ing] our existing sanctions"--and doubling the misery of poor Zimbabweans--is the principled alternative.


Philip Terzian is literary editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.


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