Politics & Policy

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U.S. leadership on Zimbabwe is needed now more than ever.

The picture in post-election Zimbabwe just keeps getting muddier, and that’s the way Robert Mugabe wants it. Weeks after the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) heads of state met, there is still no discernible progress toward resolving the standoff between Mugabe and opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Perhaps one of the saddest ironies is that South African President Thabo Mbeki has not only stymied resolution of Zimbabwe’s crisis within the region, but South Africa currently serves as chair of the United Nations Security Council. Mbeki has effectively blocked serious consideration of Zimbabwe despite strong statements from the United States, the U.K., and even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department remains strangely fixed upon the release of Zimbabwe’s election results while events unfold that will only increase the likelihood that the Mugabe regime will maintain illegitimate power. The delayed release and recounting of votes, the specter of black and white conflicts over land, the rallying call against neocolonialism, and the crackdown on opposition supporters — Mugabe has played this hand before and we must be smart enough not to be distracted this time. The only important question at hand is how best to guarantee a legitimate transfer of power that will mark the end of the Mugabe era and usher in new hope for Zimbabwe.

Regional leaders managed to achieve little when they met in Zambia. SADC Chairman and Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa said the goal of the meeting was to “adopt a coordinated approach to the situation.” To date, Mugabe has successfully dictated that coordinated approach to the SADC heads of state, and one can argue that he’s been aided and abetted by the diplomatic cover of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki continues to describe the Zimbabwe crisis as “manageable.” Average Zimbabweans have suffered extreme hardship that should not be trivialized. The key to alleviating the country’s anguish is to see through Mugabe’s tactics of distraction and focus on concrete steps to ensure his departure.

Zimbabweans have voted. If Robert Mugabe believed he had won, he would have announced the election results immediately. If Mugabe even believed that his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai did not win an outright majority, the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission would have announced the need for a run-off rather than leaving the government-controlled newspaper, The Herald, to float the idea. In short, Mugabe lost the election outright and the MDC is wise to be cautious about participating in yet another flawed election.

The fact that Morgan Tsvangirai was summoned to the SADC Extraordinary Summit earlier this month is less a result of his recent regional diplomatic swing and more a clear recognition of his new stature as the elected leader of Zimbabwe. Those who would push Tsvangirai to participate in a run-off on the basis of dubious vote counting should also know that a Zimbabwean electoral law mandates that the runoff take place within 21 days of the first vote. More importantly, the necessary review of voter rolls and other reforms needed to create a legitimate electoral process could not be achieved under the existing Mugabe-appointed Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the growing threat of violence in the country.

Mugabe has always made it known that he views his fellow African heads of state as junior partners who don’t share his credentials as a liberation leader. In fact, African Union Chairman Jakaya Kikwete let it slip that Mugabe won’t even speak to AU leaders. Yet, UNSG Ban Ki-moon correctly noted that Africa’s democracy is being undermined in Zimbabwe. It will likely fall to the next generation of African leaders like Tanzania’s Kikwete to take a stand against the old guard.

The United States should not let the current lack of clarity in Zimbabwe prevent it from forcefully supporting a democratic outcome in the country. Congress should call immediately for hearings that encourage the Bush administration to explain its approach to Zimbabwe. U.S. engagement must be elevated, not to overshadow African leadership, but instead to clearly signal the importance attached to Zimbabwe’s struggle for freedom. Secretary Rice correctly jumped into the disastrous post-election crisis in Kenya, yet the far higher human toll that the Zimbabwean crisis has exacted does not seem to attract senior administration attention. Congress can play a stronger role and help fill the disappointing gap.

U.S. policy must first and foremost support the people of Zimbabwe in their nearly decade-long quest to rid themselves of a dictator. The State Department should stop focusing on Mugabe’s distractions and now likely tainted election results and instead move swiftly to deploy committed senior administration officials to the region. This is not a time for high rhetoric. We must let SADC leaders know that we are prepared to give generously to the recovery of a democratic Zimbabwe, that we do not accept any result that would force the MDC into a flawed run-off process, and that we see Mugabe’s departure as the only viable and legitimate way forward. U.S. cooperation with the region is worth preserving and there should be no vague threats about cutting off aid. However, cooperation and partnership that does not reflect U.S. values of freedom is not worth preserving at all costs.

This opportunity for a decisive transition in Zimbabwe will pass quickly and must not be squandered. Despite Mugabe’s efforts to obscure facts and stall for time, the U.S. must help keep up the international pressure. While regional leadership is not only desirable but perhaps crucial to resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe, the lack of it should not encourage silence on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, or the White House. Now is a time to champion those fighting for democracy in Zimbabwe and that can’t be achieved quietly.

Tom Woods is a senior associate fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

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