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Dictator on the Brink

With so few accomplishments as he nears the end of his second term, it's not surprising that President Bush often points to Africa as an example of his administration's good deeds. After all, even liberal do-gooders agree that Bush has done a lot for a continent that has traditionally been an afterthought for U.S. foreign policy. Speaking of the administration's distribution of antiretroviral drugs, rock star and super-activist Bono has gushed that hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive Africans "literally owe their lives to America." In 2005, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof crowned Bush "a friend of Africa."

Yet, as positive as the Bush administration's record has been, there are glaring deficiencies. Not just in Darfur, where Western inaction has allowed hundreds of thousands to be slaughtered, but in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, a cruel dictatorship whose accomplishments include the $50,000,000 bill, 80 percent unemployment, and the lowest life expectancy in the world (with a higher death rate than genocide-ridden Darfur). To this list of achievements, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party can now add losses in the (rigged!) presidential and parliamentary elections--perhaps the only time in history that a dictator has suffered such embarrassment. Rather than relinquish power, however, Mugabe has refused to release the official results of the vote (which were first reported by independent observers). Paramilitary gangs are now attacking ZANU-PF's political opposition, led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, and Mugabe has drawn up plans for full-scale martial law.

Mugabe's rule has been a slow-motion horror show, accentuated in 2000 by his seizure of private farms. In 2003, rather than involve the United States directly, Bush anointed South African President Thabo Mbeki his "point man" on Zimbabwe. It was the perfect choice for an administration staffed by political hacks, and Mbeki has stood by as Mugabe destroyed Zimbabwe, raising nary a word of criticism. Two weeks ago, on his way to an emergency meeting convened by the Southern African Development Community to deal with the fallout of the election, Mbeki stopped in Harare, held hands with the beaming dictator on the steps of his mansion, and defiantly announced, "There is no crisis in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's other neighbors haven't been much help, either. African Union observers declared the election free and fair--the third flawed election they have certified since 2000--and later appeared on Zimbabwean state television backslapping and joking with Mugabe. Compared with Mugabe, who led the resistance against Ian Smith's white Rhodesian government three decades ago, Tsvangirai is on the wrong side of a generational divide. Many African leaders, veterans of anticolonial movements themselves, are terrified at the prospect of seeing Mugabe's ZANU-PF fall, as it could signal the beginning of a post-liberation African politics in which "struggle credentials" don't guarantee a lifetime in power.

African governments could end this crisis if they chose, and stronger cues from the West might make the difference. In the 1970s, South African Prime Minister John Vorster, under pressure from the United States and Great Britain, threatened to cut off electricity and oil supplies to landlocked, white-ruled Rhodesia if the rebel British colony did not accept majority rule. It was hardly in the interest of apartheid's overseers to see a neighboring white regime fall to black rebels, but the West made clear to Vorster that the alternative--increased international pressure--would be worse. Contrast the diplomacy of apartheid South Africa with that of its Rainbow Nation successor: This week, Pretoria allowed a ship from China (Mugabe's patron) carrying three million rounds of ammunition, 3,500 mortars and mortar tubes, and 1,500 rocket- propelled grenades bound for Zimbabwe to dock at Durban harbor.

Amidst this global impassivity, it has been more than a little exhilarating to witness the diplomacy of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a loud critic of the Mugabe regime. In December, he boycotted a European Union summit that violated its own travel ban against top ZANU-PF officials by hosting Mugabe. On Wednesday, Brown decried Zimbabwe's "stolen election" at the U.N. Security Council, an unmistakable rebuke to Mbeki, who chaired the meeting. The very next day, cracks began to emerge in South Africa's disgraceful policy towards Zimbabwe, when a spokesman announced that his country is "concerned about the delay in the release of the results and the anxiety that this is generating." Maybe talking about human rights does get things done.

By The Editors