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Mission Improbable

Can Zimbabwe’s charismatic and well-intentioned prime minister wring any money out of Obama so long as he’s sharing power with Robert Mugabe?

As if being the prime minister of Zimbabwe--a nation wracked by economic devastation, starvation, and political oppression for the past decade--was not a difficult enough job, Morgan Tsvangirai must also share power with President Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai, who has led the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) since its inception in 1999, became prime minister in a power-sharing accord brokered with Mugabe in early February, almost a year after he and the MDC defeated Mugabe and his ZANU-PF in an election fraught with irregularities. He is now on a three-week tour of Western capitals, asking governments that once branded Zimbabwe a pariah state to funnel much-needed aid to his devastated country. Today, he meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

“We have not given up our fire for a democratic Zimbabwe, even when we share power with someone who we believe has never been democratic,” Tsvangirai said firmly at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday. Tsvangirai’s democratic credentials and his commitment to a free Zimbabwe are not in doubt. He has been imprisoned and beaten, tried for treason, and marked for death. In March, just weeks after the coalition government was formed, he buried his wife of 31 years after she died in a mysterious car crash that many suspect was the work of Mugabe’s henchmen. The man deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

While Tsvangirai is someone the West can trust, there still remain the not-so-small problems of Mugabe and his political apparatus, which, despite their manifest crimes and ineptitude, can still claim a significant level of popular support within the country. Mugabe has ceded control over some aspects of the government and appears to have loosened up the internal repression, but he maintains complete authority over the nation’s armed forces, intelligence, and security services. He continues to operate, in the words of the UK Indepedent’s Daniel Howden, the “hard power” in the country.

In his meeting today with the president, the Zimbabwean Prime Minister will tell Obama what he will tell Western governments everywhere: that Zimbabwe should be “rewarded rather than punished” for the progress it has made. But Obama faces a very difficult decision. Does he listen to this courageous hero of democracy and restore American aid to Zimbabwe? Or does he insist upon even further reforms up to and including the removal of Mugabe and his cronies from office?

For a man who has faced such personal tragedy and daunting political odds, Tsvangirai was unusually sunny during his performance before some 150 journalists, think-tankers, and policy wonks on Wednesday. This may be accountable to the simple fact that he’s Zimbabwean; as Tsvangirai himself pointed out, his people are incredibly resilient. “Who in the world would ever, ever have imaged, with all the violence that has taken place in the country, that they have not resorted to armed conflict? They have remained peaceful.” he said, pointing to how the masses never rose up to overthrow Mugabe (not that Tsvangirai was ever equipped to mount such a challenge).

Might Tsvangirai’s surprisingly positive disposition also be attributable to the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe? The prime minister pointed to several key indicators of progress which he claimed are the direct fruits of the Global Political Agreement he signed last year. First, the country’s record-high inflation (at one point reaching the worse-than-Weimar level of 231 million percent) has ended with the adoption of the U.S. Dollar and South African Rand as official currency. This stabilization has allowed for improvements on two other important fronts: Now that the government can pay civil servants a stipend (if not a full salary) in sound money, teachers and doctors have returned to work, meaning that children are being educated and the sick are being cared for. Given the state Zimbabwe was in just a few months ago, these are accomplishments to be heralded.

But, of course, not all of the news coming out of Zimbabwe is good news. Tsvangirai gave a telling statistic in his speech: Ten years ago, Zimbabwe’s economy was the second largest in the region, behind only South Africa’s. Today it is dead last, smaller than the economies of Swaziland and Lesotho, tiny kingdoms. This is why Tsvangirai wants an infusion of foreign cash, an infusion that Western governments have long promised would come--but only when they could be assured that it would be used to help the Zimbabwean people and not line the pockets of Mugabe and his allies.

A major reason why Western donors remain skeptical of Zimbabwe’s future under the coalition government is that Mugabe has yet to fire the country’s central bank governor Gideon Gono. Gono was Mugabe’s money-printer during the worst years of the country’s inflation, and there’s no way that he can be trusted to engineer its return to the international export market with a stable currency. Mugabe has also refused to appoint a new Attorney General, leaving himself in control of the nation’s justice system. Another ominous sign is that the government-sanctioned invasion and seizure of white-owned farms persists, and there is no sign that Mugabe will end this policy, reimburse the victimized farmers, or restore their titles and invite them back to sow their land.

In response to these concerns--that Mugabe is a tyrant who will inevitably revert back to his old ways--Tsvangirai was too flip. Asked what motivates Mugabe, he joked, “I don’t want to demean those who have the misfortune of being over 85.” The understandable “misgivings” that Westerners have in dealing with the dictator, he said, “arise out of history.” But this “history” is very recent, as Tsvangirai, of all people, knows; it’s hard to imagine Mugabe’s violent behavior as a mere thing of the past. The country’s volatile political situation became clear in the caveat Tsvangirai had to offer for his assertion that there are no political prisoners being held in Zimbabwe: “at the moment.” The country’s last three political prisoners were only released in late April, and were quickly put back under the watch of armed guards.

Tsvangirai’s remarkable ability to wash the past aside might be difficult for Westerners to comprehend. But Tsvangirai offered a compelling example of how a country torn apart by violence and injustice can move forward. “If Nelson Mandela can go to jail for 27 years,” and emerge ready to negotiate with his jailers soon after his release, Tsvangirai said, “it is not a small measure for us to be inspired by that example.” Zimbabweans victimized by Mugabe must “forgive, but not forget.”

And for his part, Obama might be able to help the Zimbabwean people move forward without enriching Mugabe in the process. For example, Obama could offer to give Zimbabwe aid conditional that it be spent directly on the salaries of teachers and other civil servants, for instance, who are receiving paltry, $100-a-month stipends. But Mugabe still looms too large for the kind of radical, wide-scale change that Zimbabwe needs. So, despite the stirring image of an American president and Tsvangirai chatting peaceably in the Oval Office, solving the conundrum of Zimbabwe will likely prove elusive for even these most charismatic and well-intentioned of men.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic and has reported from Zimbabwe.