Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Next Up: Katrina "Could Become a Disaster"

Sometimes I wonder if anyone has even been paying attention to Zimbabwe, and by extension to Africa. This article in the Mail & Guardian contains a few lines that frustrate me to no end.:
Tom Woods, a top African affairs official at the United States State Department, said the grim prospect for Zimbabweans is that Mugabe will remain in power until his term ends in 2008.

Under Mugabe's rule, Woods said, the Southern African country has suffered an economic decline of 40% in recent years and a brain drain that is probably irreversible.

Zimbabwe could become "a failed state or a failing state," Woods said, speaking to a gathering at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He said the world should support growing pressures for change in Zimbabwe and act to save the people of Zimbabwe from the "worst aspects" of Mugabe's rule.

Two things stand out from these few lines. The first is the part about "the grim prospects for Zimbabweans" being that Mugabe is likely to continue his reign. What is it that we used to say in elementary school to someone who stated the obvious?


This is about as inanely obvious as a statement can be. Let's see, Mugabe has consolidated his hold on power in recent years. His dictatorship is substantially worse than it was a decade ago. His neighbors in South Africa, the most powerful nation on the continent, have done virtually nothing to arrest Zim's freefall. The United States and its allies have barely feigned interest in what Mugabe has done to his people, as we have barely feigned interest in African affairs for, well, forever. And from all of this, Tom Woods makes the stunning conclusion that Mugabe will maintain power? It is almost breathtaking in its obliviousness.

The second phrase that stands out is Woods' assertion that Zimbabwe could become a "failed state or a failing state." Oh, could it? Whatever might bring about this bold assertion? Don't step too far out on that limb. Zimbabwe has gone in two decades from one of the great hopes of subsaharan Africa to one of its worst autocracies. Zimbabwe could once proudly claim to feed its people and be one of the major exporters of food in the region. Now people run the risk of starving and Zimbabwe gorges aid like a supermodel at a laxative buffet table. So you really think it is possible that Zimbabwe "could" become a failed state?

Does the State Department's entire Zimbabwe program really hinge on Mugabe's successor being someone we can deal with and who will lead his people from darkness into light? A culture of controlled anarchy has emerged in Zim that will not disappear when the head dies. Mugabe's successor will be anxious to consolidate his control and put his own stamp on the country. Witness what happened in the former Zaire when Laurent Kabila took over in a successful coup against our Cold War glory boy, the almost unfathomably kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko. It is impossible to imagine Mugabe's successor undertaking liberal democratic reforms.

The answer is not force. At least not right now. For one thing, the application of such force would be a near impossibility. It would plunge the region into chaos. Again. But the solution does come through the application of pressure -- to Zimbabwe, to be sure, but also to South Africa in the form of carrots as much as sticks. Mbeki's calculus thus far has been that ignoring Zim, or using constructive engagement with Mugabe, is better for South Africa's interests than a more forceful approach. We need to convince Mbeki that his approach, while understandable, has failed, and that we will help him find a more assertive course. And we need to do so by following up on the promise of development that followed the transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994 but that has somewhat fizzled. Would such promises constitute austerity? No -- South Africa has the region's most developed economy, whatever its shortcomings, and such investment would be in everyone's self interest. But how can America and Americans invest when South Africa's neighbor is in such tumult, especially in a region known for its volatility? South Africa can and should be our partner in Africa. Let the Zim issue be the one that brings us back and helps us realize the partnership.

But for now, we appear to be wringing our hands, suddenly aware that Mugabe is not going anywhere, worrying far too late about what might be while denying what already is.

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