Undermining Mugabe

August 22, 2002

A MESSAGE TO Washington: Yes, President Robert G. Mugabe and his disastrous policies are responsible for Zimbabwe's growing economic troubles, including a serious famine. But the U.S. government's pledge this week to bolster his critics could make matters worse, unless such an intervention is handled craftily and with care.

In fact, it is likely that any overt U.S. aid would be a kiss of death to human rights activists, labor unions and pro-democracy movements at the receiving end. After all, "Comrade" Mugabe, a doctrinaire Marxist who insists on that honorific, is a power-mad -- and possibly unstable -- man.

He is also so unforgiving and vengeful that he doesn't care about the consequences.

After Mr. Mugabe engineered a dubious re-election victory in March, he launched a furious witch hunt against his critics. Dissident labor unionists, who had fanned urban discontent, were hounded. White farmers, the backbone of the country's food production, were ordered off their lands because they had supported and bankrolled his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Since then, Mr. Mugabe has scored a Pyrrhic victory on both counts.

Most white farmers, fearing for their lives, have fled, exacerbating Zimbabwe's grave food shortages. The rest of the opposition has been emasculated, at least temporarily.

The official government line is that Zimbabwe's troubles are caused by Britain and the United States because they failed "in a frantic bid to install a puppet regime" to derail land reform. That line is nonsense, of course -- particularly since the United States is a big and continuing provider of food aid. Nevertheless, the relentless propaganda has been so effective that few Zimbabweans critical of Mr. Mugabe want anything to do with Washington or London.

Unfortunately, this scapegoating has resonated with other Southern African governments, as well. Privately, their representatives may be willing to concede that Mr. Mugabe's policies are suicidal, but they do not want to criticize him openly.

Yet working skillfully and patiently with the government and opinion leaders in these neighboring countries is the most productive avenue for the United States to influence events in Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe himself is probably beyond redemption, but people who are jockeying to succeed him are likely to be more sensible and realistic. They may listen to outside advice, if it comes from trusted sources.

Early September is the logical starting point for this psychological maneuvering because Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is scheduled to be in South Africa for an international development conference. In consultations, he should express grave concern for Zimbabwe's stability, but alleviate fears that the United States wants to dictate its future course.

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