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The Mugabelogue

Two journalists discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Who’s interested in Zimbabwe, and why? How should Westerners understand the situation there? And could this all be Jimmy Carter’s fault? T.A. Frank and James Kirchick discussed the situation over IM.


Why Zimbabwe?

T.A. Frank: As people like to point out, there are a lot of rotten countries out there. So why this rotten country? Let’s talk about why you and I happen to care about Zimbabwe.

James Kirchick: Well, personally, I've been there. I've met with democracy activists, and I've met with exiled Zimbabweans in South Africa.

Frank: What took you there?

Kirchick: I was in South Africa on a journalism grant, and figured, why not? I only went for a few days-- it's not the safest place to be an unaccredited journalist -- but it's certainly shaped my views on U.S. policy towards the region.

Frank: And you avoided being arrested for "committing journalism," I assume.

Kirchick: Thankfully, yes.

Frank: For me, what's grimly riveting about Zimbabwe--as opposed to other nations under tyrannical rule--is that it's had such a fast and senseless decline. Sure, it's probably worse to be in North Korea, but yesterday in Pyongyang was the same as today. Zimbabwe, by contrast, was a highly developed, prosperous country until even a decade ago. Mugabe took the “jewel of Africa” and obliterated it.

Kirchick: And the situation in Zimbabwe should be much easier to fix than North Korea. For one, it isn't a military threat to anyone, except to its own people. Plus, Zimbabweans are the best educated people in Africa. (It's the one good thing Mugabe did.) It’s also surrounded by reasonably democratic states. All of this makes the situation even more of a tragedy: It could be fixed if there was the will.

Is it just white Zimbabweans that Westerners care about?

Frank: There are those who insist that the only reason so many of us in the West are obsessed with Zimbabwe is that white farmers have been kicked off their land. What do have to say for yourself, Kirchick? Are you secretly just hoping to reunite white tobacco farmers with their crops?

Kirchick: Historically, I think there’s some merit to that argument. Early on, the one thing that distinguished Zimbabwe from the rest of Africa's horrors was that white people were involved. But that can no longer be the case. There are hardly any whites left in the country now, and those that remain are relatively well off.

Frank: Right, most whites had already been kicked off their farms years ago.

Kirchick: Poor blacks have faced the brunt of Mugabe's brutality. They have been the ones kicked out of their homes by the hundreds of thousands. They're the ones being murdered today by Mugabe supporters.

Frank: In that sense, whites still enjoy a sort of perverse privilege. Few have been subjected to the sort of torture the black Zimbabweans in rural areas have.

Kirchick: Right. So today, that argument, despite what New York City councilman Charles Barron says, holds no water.

Frank: I also think even the original uptick of interest in Zimbabwe that we saw in 2000, while awakened by white farmers, was not solely based on them. After all, what distinguishes Zimbabwe from the rest of the continent is that it was a pretty decent country. Even 20 years ago the cops didn't take bribes, the judiciary functioned more or less like it should, and freedom of the press was basically upheld. Mugabe did horrible things almost right from the start, sure, but it takes time to subvert a rooted system like that. And seeing any country decline that way is especially chilling and tragic.


What’s wrong with Zimbabwe’s neighbors?

Frank: So Mugabe “won” the runoff this Friday, unchallenged (his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, had withdrawn), and then headed off for an African Union (AU) summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. Looks like he had a perfectly pleasant time, actually.

Kirchick: Except for that tough interview with a British journalist. But on the whole, a pretty despicable performance from the AU.

Frank: Perhaps, given the less-than-noble history of the organization (or its related organizations), this has to be considered progress of a sort. At least some African leaders are speaking up now.

Kirchick: That's true, and the United States should do what it can to incentivize African leaders to criticize Mugabe. I see no reason why certain foreign aid programs should not be contingent upon taking a firmer line against him

Frank: It's all about South Africa, though, isn't it? That's Mugabe's lifeline. The rest is ornamental.

Kirchick: Mostly, yes. South Africa could pretty much end this tomorrow by threatening to cut off electricity and oil supplies, as apartheid-era Prime Minister B.J. Vorster did to Rhodesia's white-minority leader Ian Smith in 1976. (It says something about Thabo Mbeki when you're comparing him unfavorably to Vorster.)

Frank: But it's not like it was Vorster's bright idea to cut off Smith.

Kirchick: No, Henry Kissinger essentially threatened him. But these days the U.S. is very gun-shy about criticizing--let alone threatening--South Africa


Is this all Jimmy Carter’s fault?

Kirchick: You know, this may strike some people as out there, but, more black Africans have died as a result of the outright brutality of Robert Mugabe than under Ian Smith.

Frank: Well, in terms of deaths alone, OK, I'll join you in your calculus on Ian Smith versus Mugabe.

Kirchick: None of this is to argue, of course, that white rule was preferable--it was abhorrent. But it's worth noting that the world took such a heavy interest in whiteauthoritarian rule while simultaneously ignoring black totalitarian rule. This all goes back to Jeane Kirkpatrick's 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which delineates the fundamental differences between the way “right-wing” authoritarian regimes and “left-wing” totalitarian ones behave and is very apt regarding Africa.

Frank: Yeah, I might be a liberal, but I agree on this point. It is a great essay that’s often been misunderstood. (I wish the neocons of today would read it.) The case of Zimbabwe, which at the time was called Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, is something she cites in passing as an example of Carter’s misguided foreign policy. And it was indeed a doozy. What most people forget is that Mugabe did not technically replace white-minority rule when he came to power in 1980. He replaced what had been a black-majority rule government headed by a black bishop named Abel Muzorewa. Now, there were many flaws with this government--it entrenched whites in certain positions of power and guaranteed whites 28 out of 100 seats, even though whites were only about four percent of the population--but it still represented a major step forward. It meant, for one thing, that white minority rule was no more. I’d also argue that the flaws of the new arrangement, while considerable, were nevertheless fixable. Instead of working with Muzorewa, though, Carter refused to meet him when he visited the U.S. to ask for sanctions to be lifted (despite over 70 U.S. senators likewise urging him to lift them). It was the moment that Carter effectively took the side of Mugabe’s Marxist guerillas, even as they were still conducting terrorist attacks on black and white civilians.

Kirchick: It's actually a quintessential moment of the Carter legacy, and should be understood as such, though it's mostly forgotten now. Granted, what happened there was mostly the fault of the British, as so many things are, but the Carter record on Zimbabwe was as bad, if not as portentous, as its legacy on Iran.

Frank: Yes, but the perversity of our Zimbabwe policy wasn’t that we were taking Mugabe's side against Ian Smith. It’s that we were also taking Mugabe's side against black Zimbabwean moderates who saw what Mugabe was saying about one-party Marxist rule and rightly feared his ascension to power.

Kirchick: That’s right. But certainly, at the end of the day, no one was morally pure. Even Bishop Muzorewa, whom I've argued ought to have been recognized as the duly elected prime minister, had his thugs and may have been secretly funded by the South Africans. Still, why should that be a stain on him while the Chinese funding of Mugabe was seen as just the necessity of being a guerilla warrior? You may have seen last week that Andrew Young is still apologizing for Mugabe.

Frank: I did see that shockingly unambiguous defense of Mugabe, even after all of this. Given that sort of mindset, it's really stunning that this was the man who was a key influence on Carter's Africa policy. But perhaps we’ve Carter-bashed enough, at least for the next ten minutes. Readers hoping for more might want to check The Spine.

Where’s the left on Zimbabwe?

Kirchick: It’s interesting how the media is covering this issue. It seems as though The Wall Street Journal has had at least two editorials or op-eds a week on Zimbabwe since late March, as has the New York Sun. Same goes for many conservative blogs and publications, but you don't see the same sort of editorializing about Zimbabwe on the left. I've seen one article in The Nation and scattered blog posts in The American Prospect. And when they do write about it, as in that Nation piece, you often hear advocacy for some sort of appeasement of Mugabe. Sorry if my use of that word offends people, but that's what it is. The left isn't interested in Zimbabwe because America can't be blamed.

Frank: Well, I'd agree that anything that involves "unity government" talk is appeasement. My sense, though, is that it's mostly coming from African leaders rather than leftist opinion writers. And at a governmental level, Europe and the United States have been unusually united about this. Even France is calling it all a "farce."

Kirchick: Yes, unity government isn’t possible in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe needs de-Baathification.

Frank: I'd settle for de-Mugabefication.

Kirchick: Right, but the party is the problem. It's more than just Mugabe.

How about Obama and McCain?

Frank: So, to shift over to presidential politics, whom would you trust more to deal with Zimbabwe--McCain or Obama?

Kirchick: That's a good question. I wonder why McCain hasn't asked if Obama would meet with Mugabe.

Frank: Ouch. Still, I sense Obama cares a bit more about this issue than McCain does. He even wrote about it in his essay on patriotism for Time.

Kirchick: Sure, I'm sure he does, but I'm also inclined to believe that Obama is more likely to depend upon the likes of regional groups like the AU and the Southern African Development Community.

Frank: Yes, I think he would. But what else are you going to rely on? You go to war with the AU and SADC you have.

Kirchick: Sure. Ultimately, I don't think there would be a huge difference in policy towards Zimbabwe, which is to say that America has never really had a serious policy in dealing with the

Frank: Yeah, I guess that’s true. It's been considered geopolitically irrelevant for years. But I also sense that Obama, simply by virtue of being half-Kenyan, gains a lot of credibility in the region.

Kirchick: I sense with a lot of Obama supporters that they don't grasp the huge space between their expectations and the reality of politics. And you already see that in Obama's sudden shift to the center on so many issues.

T.A. Frank: Yeah, well, Obama will probably disappoint us on many things. But, personally, I’d still take being disappointed by Obama over being pleasantly surprised by McCain.

T.A. Frank is an editor at the Washington Monthly and an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation. James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

By T.A. Frank and James Kirchick