The Magazine

Mr. President, Liberate Zimbabwe

A good deed for Bush's final days.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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In the final days of his presidency, George W. Bush will face an avalanche of requests. Well-connected political hands will inquire if so-and-so could receive a coveted pardon, lobbyists will ask for that last-minute executive order, obscure foreign leaders will finally call in chits for having joined the Coalition of the Willing. In the routine and predictable nature of these appeals, Bush's remaining time in office will be little different from those of his predecessors granting last-minute favors to the privileged and powerful. But Bush has an opportunity to benefit some of the world's most destitute individuals and to secure a positive and lasting legacy in a country that has suffered under the boot of a megalomaniacal thug for decades.

Zimbabwe, which for the past eight years has been careening from one disaster to another, is today on the precipice of humanitarian catastrophe. Ruled by Robert Mugabe for nearly 29 years, the country has been in political stalemate since March when Mugabe lost a presidential and parliamentary election to Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe rejected the results and won a rigged follow-up. He was then coaxed by African leaders into negotiations to establish a coalition government, but has refused to cede control of the army, the police force, or the central bank. He uses the negotiations to prevent any handover of power to the real winners of the country's election and to frustrate all attempts at economic reform.

What ought to bring Zimbabwe to the forefront of international concern is a spreading cholera epidemic, incubated in sewage-infested townships, which threatens to overtake the country and the region. The World Health Organization has confirmed nearly 800 deaths so far (though it believes many more have perished) and 16,000 more cases. Most of the country's hospitals are inoperative, and the Zimbabwean government has no means to stanch the spread of the disease. Indeed, it couldn't prevent the initial outbreak, which it blames on Western governments' poisoning of water wells.

Given the massive refugee outflows to bordering states and an intensified mortality level brought about by the policies of the Mugabe regime over the past several years, it is no longer possible to even state Zimbabwe's current population. U.S. government estimates of the number of citizens residing in-country range from 5.8 million to 12 million. Most of these people are in need of emergency food supplies, and they will starve unless outside actors like the United Nations or the United States comes to their help.

Calls for Mugabe's forcible removal are growing stronger. For some time now, the president of neighboring Botswana, Ian Khama, has supported intervention to topple Mugabe. He was joined earlier this month by the Kenyan prime minister, Raila Odinga, who said that "it's time for African governments .  .  . to push [Mugabe] out of power." He told Tsvangirai to boycott the stalled power-sharing talks as the negotiations, with their patina of international legitimacy, have become a way for an illegitimate leader to maintain his grip on power--not unlike another "peace process" in a different part of the world. Even South Africa's Desmond Tutu supports intervention.

African leaders have long protected Mugabe, fearful of the precedent that ushering out a liberation-era hero could set for their own political survival. Last week, amid the growing chorus of calls for Mugabe to step down, a spokesperson for the chairman of the African Union said, "Only dialogue between the Zimbabwean parties, supported by the AU and other regional actors, can restore peace and stability to that country." Mugabe, meanwhile, continues to threaten violence against anyone who would try to ease him or his party out of power. "We won this country through the barrel of the gun and we will defend it the way we won it," a government spokesman said.

Mugabe has the backing of both Russia and China, meaning that, as with NATO's intervention in Bosnia, military action would have to be taken outside the parameters of the United Nations. With the vocal support of Botswana and Kenya, an American- and British-led force could work alongside African troops to decapitate the regime and facilitate the delivery of emergency aid and the installation of the duly elected government. The Zimbabwean military is poorly equipped and demoralized; last month, soldiers rioted in response to the government's failure to pay them on time (a task complicated by the fact that the country faces 231 million percent inflation). In the face of professional armies, many units would surrender or revolt against their commanders. "The [Zimbabwean] military would be very weak and have a difficult time in resisting any credible intervention," says J. Anthony Holmes, a former Foreign Service officer now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

A few days ago, I chatted online with the Zimbabwean fixer I worked with during a visit to the country in 2006. He has not been wanting for work. Since the March election, a steady stream of journalists has come to report on the stalled negotiations and needed his skills at ferrying them around the country, arranging interviews, and dodging military cordons and security operatives. But he finds the utter lack of political progress frustrating and the humanitarian situation unendurable. "I have given up," he says. He described the horrors he saw recently taking a French journalist to the cholera-infected area. "He cried," my friend told me.

"It is time for Robert Mugabe to go," Bush said last week, recognizing the growing momentum in favor of a humanitarian intervention to save Zimbabwe. "Across the continent, African voices are bravely speaking out to say now is the time for him to step down." Asked to reflect upon his legacy in an interview last month, Bush said, "I'd like to be a president [known] as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace." In his final days in office, he could liberate millions more.

James Kirchick, who has reported from Zimbabwe, is an assistant editor at The New Republic.